“These are demons from the Eastern Coast.” A-Yi flung away the bloodstains on the femur and said to Jing Lin. “It’s really strange. The Eastern Sea is under Zong Yin’s jurisdiction. There had never been any unrest there for hundreds of years. He would never allow demons to cross the boundary to harm humans.”
Jing Lin looked at that still twitching corpse and used his cotton handkerchief to wipe his hands. He was particularly bothered by the blood splattered onto A-Yi’s robe, so he shifted over to Cang Ji’s side before opening his mouth. “We won’t know the details unless we see Zong Yin. He won’t be able to leave the Eastern Sea easily. You can head over to pay him a visit once this matter is over.”
“You’re asking me to make a special trip to see Zong Yin just for the sake of a demon?!” A-Yi threw away the bone and said, “No way! He started a feud with my Ah Jie that last time. I don’t want to talk to him. Hell, I’d even applaud if something really happens to him.”
“Have you found any clues yet?” Cang Ji asked. “This courtyard is only this big. It won’t be able to conceal a devil.”
A-Yi said, “Since that evil spirit is willing to dispatch demons to follow this person, he must not have wanted him to die. But Jing Lin beheaded him before I got the chance to ask!”
“There’s no need to ask.” Jing Lin wiped his fingers and said, “Liu Chengde scouted around for beauties on behalf of the emperor. Tao-di must have some control over him if he’s willing to give him free access. An interrogation takes time and will only make it more likely for information to leak to Tao-di.”
“But Chu Lun will not be able to enter the inner palace based on his identity alone.” A-Yi said. “If I don’t see the old emperor, I’ll not be able to tell exactly where the evil spirit is hiding within the palace.”
“That’s why Liu Chengde has to die.” Cang Ji took Jing Lin’s handkerchief and said, “It’s only if he dies that our ‘Liu Chengde’ can enter without any fear.”
As soon as the words left Cang Ji’s mouth, he saw Jing Lin’s appearance change into that of “Liu Chengde”. He had interacted with Liu Chengde for so long today that imitating him for just a moment would be more than sufficient to pass himself off as the real deal.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was midnight when there was a knock on the courtyard gate. The gate was bolted from the inside, and it took quite a while before it was unlatched. A eunuch with a wooden expression stood outside the gate. When he saw the door open, he pointed a finger towards a sedan chair. “Liu Chengde” stepped out of the door and bent over to enter the sedan. The sedan chair jerked and began to move forward at full speed.
The sedan bearers’ feet never touched the ground as they crossed the streets under the thick cover of the night all the way to the palace gate. The eunuch accompanying the sedan followed closely behind with swift steps to protect the man within. When the sedan arrived at its destination, it sank to the ground again. The eunuch lifted the curtain to stare at a sleepy Liu Chengde and stepped aside as a signal for him to get off the sedan.
Jing Lin lifted the hem of his robe, got off the sedan, and lowered his head to follow the eunuch. The eunuch carried his horsetail whisk1 over an arm, while someone else at his side with a lantern in hand led the way to a richly ornamented hall. Jing Lin’s eyes lingered on the eunuch’s shoes and noted how the soles of his shoes never touched the earth. Some guesses about the eunuch’s real form started forming in his mind.
The eunuch proceeded with his head lowered until he came to their destination less than an hour later. He flicked his horsetail whisk and stepped aside for Jing Lin to move past. Jing Lin ascended the stairs, but before he could come to a standstill, he heard the man inside say, “There’s no need to kneel. Come in and talk.”
Jing Lin recognized this as the old emperor’s voice, so he stepped across the threshold to enter. The hall was still as dimly lit, and the old emperor was reclining against the dragon throne.2 A beautiful woman was kneeling by his feet, presenting a fruit with both her hands beside the emperor’s hand. Her bare back looked as if it was carved out of jade. She was shivering, although Jing Lin did not know if it was out of cold or fear.
The old emperor snorted. He plucked out a fruit, threw it at Jing Lin’s robe, and said, “You have been here for so long, and you still haven’t grown some guts. Look at you cowering. Are you afraid I’ll eat you?”
“Liu Chengde” held the fruit and repeatedly uttered, “I wouldn’t dare”. The old emperor said, “You sound like you have fallen ill. When you leave later, get an imperial physician to take a look.” His compassion ended here, and he followed up with a question, “Have you found anyone these days?”
“Liu Chengde” replied in a fluster. “I’ve found a fine-looking one from the north. Do you wish to take a look?”
The old emperor patted the beauty at his feet with the back of his hand and commanded her to show her face to Liu Chengde. He said, “If she’s not as comparable as this one, then there’s no need to send her over.”
The beauty’s face reddened from his pats. She lowered her eyes and shrank back, and a fruit in her palm tumbled off. She did not dare to pick it up nor looked at the old emperor in the eyes. The next thing she knew, the palm on her cheek threw her a slap so hard that she fell over to the side on the ground and trembled.
“You can’t even hold a fruit.” The old emperor lowered his eyelids. “What’s the point of keeping you?”
On seeing this, “Liu Chengde” said in a quiet voice, “To answer Your Majesty, the new one I found isn’t just pretty, but very gentle too.”
The old emperor seemed to be listless. When he heard this, he rubbed the back of his hand impatiently and said,” Then present her to me quickly! Don’t make me wait.”
“Liu Chengde” bowed his head in compliance and hurriedly turned around to wave his hand at the attendant following behind him. This attendant signaled the eunuch with his eyes. The eunuch hurried down the stairs and detoured around the bricked path to receive the person from the sedan that had just arrived.
The old emperor’s eyes wandered. He asked abruptly, “Why aren’t you using the men assigned to you?”
“Liu Chengde” replied in trepidation. “They have been following me for the whole day, so I told them to rest for tonight. This man was transferred over from my hometown. He knows some martial arts, but he’s deaf.”
“Knows some martial arts.” The old emperor sneered. “Is he better than those few I gave him? Could it be that you are plotting something after having grown tired of being watched by me?”
“Liu Chengde” nearly fell to his knees out of fright and maintained “I dare not” in a panicked voice. Sweat poured off him as he explained himself until the old emperor’s mood turned for the better. The old emperor glanced at the attendant a few times and saw him standing blankly behind the drapery. He dropped the matter after noting how wooden and slow-witted he looked.
Just then, the eunuch brought in the new beauty. The old emperor looked through the dim light and vaguely caught sight of the shiny hairpin on that willowy figure who was paying her obeisances. That slightly exposed nape piqued his interest. He sat upright a little more and ordered the figure to raise her head.
A-Yi suppressed his urge to fly into a rage as he assessed Cang Ji’s fist out of the corner of his eyes. Left without a choice, he forced a smile and slowly raised his head to cast a shy, dainty smile at the old emperor.
His smile was like the sparkles of jewels brightening up the entire chamber. Even Tao Zhi, who was used to seeing beauties, could not tell for a moment that this person was a man. Through the old emperor’s skin, Tao Zhi lifted his fingers to caress Ah Yu from his bangs to his neck. There was not a spot he did not cherish; every single spot made his throat dry.
“Liu Chengde” lost no time in asking. “How does Your Majesty find him?”
This was actually a question for A-Yi. A-Yi exchanged glances with the emperor and saw his dark forehead and malevolent eyes. His entire body seemed to be shrouded in a black fog. Thus he lowered his head even more bashfully as a nod in response to Jing Lin’s question.
“During the morning court tomorrow, take the prefectural yamen from the north with you to receive your reward!” Tao Zhi clapped his hands together and sighed. “I will reward you heavily!”
Without waiting for Jing Lin to say his thanks, he grasped A-Yi by the hand. The sight of A-Yi’s side profile dazzled him, and he kept addressing A-Yi as “darling” as he pulled A-Yi towards the inner chamber.
Tao Zhi kneaded A-Yi’s hand and found it a little large, but it was so slender and pretty that it did not seem to be the hands of a laborer. He felt around his hand a few times, then wrapped his arm around A-Yi’s waist only to realize how slender it was. He took a sniff at the scent of rouge on A-Yi, completely entranced by his every frown and smile.
A-Yi was shocked. He had never expected himself to be pretty to such an extent. So it turned out that he had been underestimating himself all these while!
The old emperor led A-Yi inside. A-Yi twisted his body around to pinch his throat as he daintily and gently shoved the old emperor’s chest. He chided, “Your Majesty is too impatient.”
Tao Zhi caught his hand and caressed A-Yi’s wrist, kneading it as if he was flirting with him. He said, “I’ve been waiting for so many days just for you. The night is short. We shouldn’t delay.”
A-Yi wanted to contend further. But the hand that was grasping him suddenly tightened its grip until it was almost dragging him to the bed to pin him down. Even though Tao Zhi was clouded by lust, he did not forget to keep track of the time. The foundation for his cultivation had been unstable when he escaped from the Blood Sea. His current foundation was one stabilized by eating humans in the mountain city. Later on, he had come to the capital and devoured half of the Goddess Shengyue’s body, expecting to have the ability to swallow up Heaven. He never expected Shengyue’s foundation to have already withered to the point that it could not even maintain his current body. So he cultivated the evil path and relied on these beauties to sustain himself. If his interest was piqued, he would use them. When his interest waned, he would eat them. The only thing was that he had a penchant to do things by the timing. It would not do for him be a minute quicker, or even an instant slower.
A-Yi was pinned face down onto the bedding. The fury rose within him as soon as his face scraped against the bedding. He detested this evil spirit. This lecher loves screwing around so much that who knew how many people had lain here before? How dare he let him sleep on it?!
A-Yi’s wrists hurt, but he could not break free no matter how he struggled, so he slammed the back of his head into Tao Zhi’s face. Tao Zhi hissed in pain and released his hands. A-Yi lifted his skirt and turned around to stomp on Tao Zhi’s chest, sending him crashing into the table and chairs, overturning them.
Tao Zhi realized that the situation did not bode well as he rolled on the floor. He lifted his arm, wanting to summon his men. A-Yi went up to him and stomped down on him, and several golden patterns smashed into Tao Zhi’s back. This golden, glittering spell was not effective on the grass spirit, but to an evil spirit, it was no different from being branded by a smoldering iron.3
Tao Zhi’s back was so badly scalded that it melted. He sucked in a breath and bellowed, “The Brahma Altar Buddhist scripts!”
A-Yi stepped on his wrist and said hatefully, “How very gutsy of you to take liberties with me! You even dare to provoke me! I’ll smash you into oblivion today!”
The flesh and skin on Tao Zhi’s back split open from the searing heat. He shook and jerked himself free of the “old emperor’s” skin as if he were molting. Black fog intensified and surged towards A-Yi in an embrace. With a lightning move of his hands, A-Yi formed a seal. The golden Sanskrit scripts spun around him and shocked the black fog three chi4 back in a retreat!
◈ ◈ ◈
The eunuch outside jerked his horsetail whisk, but he did not expect to be interrupted midway by someone else. In the blink of an eye, the deaf attendant stretched his arms and grew taller. That arm wrapped itself around the horsetail whisk. Without waiting for the eunuch to retreat, he closed in before him and hauled the man up.
Jing Lin had already reverted to his original appearance. He pressed down on Cang Ji’s arm and said, “This is a bird of the Eastern Sea. You can’t eat it.”
Cang Ji thought he feared Zong Yin and asked, “Just because he’s a bird of the Hai Jiao, I can’t eat him?”
Jing Lin heard a tinge of aggrievement in his tone and said, “That isn’t it.”
Cang Ji said, “Then, I’m going to eat him?”
Jing Lin explained, “This bird loves to eat poison. Its flesh and blood have steeped in toxin for such a long time that it stinks.”
He had only just said that when he saw the horsetail whisk break into pieces. Before this eunuch bird could let out a warble, Cang Ji gently broke its neck. Jing Lin saw him gently put the bird back onto the ground before he gently released his hands. As if relieved of a heavy load, he said, “Luckily I didn’t crush it. The smell is still alright.”
Before either of them could continue, they heard the candlestick in the palace toppled over with a “crash”. The candle flame rolled and licked at the drapery. A-Yi still had the upper hand earlier, and now his pearl hairpin had fallen to the ground. Grasping his sleeves, he began to jump among the flames and said in horror, “Stop chit-chatting! Why are you two always doing things at inappropriate times?! My feathers are going to be burned!”
With that, he sprang three chi high and covered his ass while fleeing frantically and cursing, “Fucking son of a bitch! We are now sworn enemies since you dare to lay your hands on my feathers! What are you guys waiting for? Hit him!”
The black fog charged forth, and Cang Ji dealt him a head-on blow. His strike stirred up a surge of wind, but his punch felt as if it had sunk into cotton. A face loomed out of the fog and clung on to Cang Ji’s arm, saying, “You came at the right time. If I can devour you, no one in the Three Realms will be able to take me down!”
Scales instantly covered Cang Ji’s arms, but the sinister cold grazed its way into his flesh along the gaps between the scales. Half of Cang Ji’s body sank as he was almost dragged into the black fog.
A-Yi fumed. “Bite him!”
Cang Ji steadied his lower body and swiftly threw himself to the floor. He gripped the face in the fog and slammed it onto the ground. The bricks cracked. The face had been pummeled until its appearance was indistinguishable.
“Why isn’t he devouring that evil spirit?” A-Yi slapped away at the fire anxiously. “He could even devour Zui Shan Seng. Don’t tell me he’s afraid of the evil spirit?!”
Jing Lin clapped A-Yi on his back shoulder, and A-Yi felt the powerful force of the wind as it pushed him towards the black fog. Buddhist scripts surged forth like a golden chain coiling around the black fog to cage him within.
“He’s not afraid.” Jing Lin said. “He just dislikes the stink.”
拂尘 Horsetail whisk. Eunuchs in those days carried a horsetail whisk with them wherever they went. They usually followed the emperor around to serve him, and the horsetail would come in handy when they need to dust seats clean for the emperor whenever the emperor wants to take a seat
龙椅 Dragon throne, the imperial throne of the emperor.
- 铁烙 iron branding is one of the tortures in ancient China where a piece of scorching iron is seared into the flesh. Slaves are also sometimes branded to mark them as their owner’s ‘properties’.
- 尺 a Chinese foot; one-third of a meter