Cang Ji tightened his arms around Jing Lin and picked him up. The lean muscles on his back rippled like a beast that would burst out of the shadows any time in an attack. With a slight tilt of ear, he could hear his heavy breathing.
Zong Yin leaned over to enter the room. He was tall in his human form, blocking even the last ray of light. He was lost in memories, looking at Cang Ji with a gaze that was part scrutiny and part speculation.
“Who are you?” Zong Yin asked.
Zong Yin’s intimidating presence stimulated Cang Ji to the point that his spiritual expanse was unstable. The aura of the Hai Jiao1 saturated the surrounding air, holding Cang Ji captive at the corner with nowhere to run. But Cang Ji had no intention to flee. His extreme greed and terrifying desire were rekindled, hiding an insatiable thirst in his heart.
Cang Ji did not reply. He pressed the back of Jing Lin’s head to bury Jing Lin’s face in his neck. It was easy for him at the moment to even break Jing Lin’s waist by exerting a little more force. His displeasure was reflected in his eyes as he stared at Zong Yin’s every move. It was as if he had already expressed all he wanted to say with the word “scram”.
“Zong Yin.” Fu Li sighed behind him. “As you have seen, this isn’t an evil being but a brocade carp that has cultivated enough to evolve into human form. What else do you want to do?”
“That’s not right.” Zong Yin countered. “You said he is a brocade carp, but I saw a reverse scale2 below his neck. There are countless things in the world, but only the dragon is born with a reverse scale. He is not a fish at all.”
There were no longer any dragon and phoenix in the realms between Heaven and Earth. Even after a hundred over years of hard work and cultivation, Hai Jiao Zong Yin had yet to see the Dragon Gate3, nor had he gotten the opportunity to pass through it, so he had remained in the Eastern Sea, unable to ascend to the Nine Heavens Realm. It was because of this that he was sure he was right. Cang Ji was an oddity. Zong Yin had looked at Cang Ji’s original form; even his spiritual expanse was built in the form of a brocade carp, and he did not have the bearings of a dragon at all. More importantly, his eyes were full of malice and ferocity. He was clearly a demon that had yet to set foot in the mundane world — it was evident that he would not listen to reasoning nor play by the rules of Heaven and Earth.
Zong Yin could not help taking a step closer.
This was too strange.
“Zong Yin!” Fu Li grabbed hold of Zong Yin’s arm. “How could you get close to him? Have you forgotten what you are? Take a good look again. He’s just a brocade carp. The spiritual energy of this garden is blocked off, even more so for the inner chamber. If you go closer, he will not be able to withstand your tremendous power and die. You have no grudges or enmity with him, so why hurt the innocent?!”
“If he’s really just a brocade carp, why do you have to be so secretive?” Zong Yin asked in a steady tone.
“I have a past affinity with him, so I’m just lending him a hand. As you know, the Demarcation Division is paying close watch. My helping him isn’t that big or small of a deal if someone reports me, but it’s still against the law of Heavens and the rules of Ninth Heaven.” Seeing Zong Yin’s unreadable face, Fu Li sighed heavily and continued hesitantly, “You know that I used to be a subordinate of Lord Linsong, and our current Lord hates Lord Linsong the most. All these years, I’ve never wanted to displease him, fearful of incurring his wrath. So naturally, I’ve to be careful. Can’t we forget about today’s incident on account of our years of relationship?”
Fu Li was the Deity of Can Li, and the astronomical phenomena of the North all fell under her charge. The five-colored bird was born after phoenix, a divine bird designated into service by the Supreme Father himself back in those days. Unlike Hai Jiao Zong Yin, Fu Li was a true immortal who had been officially conferred a title in the records of the Ninth Heaven Realm. Technically speaking, she was one rank higher than Zong Yin. But as she said, it was well-known that she had slumbered in the palm of Lord Linsong even when she was still a fledgling. At that time, the roots of Can Li Tree were damaged, and so she had grown up under the command of Lord Linsong. She was a divine bird that had been raised by Lord Linsong. Therefore, when Lord Linsong rebelled against the Heavens, she had been implicated and imprisoned in Zhui Hun Prison and interrogated by the Supreme Lord. Eventually, after their investigations, Zhui Hun Prison had determined that Lord Linsong had acted alone. That was how she had managed to escape death, and it was also why her glory had lost its shine and no longer what it used to be in the Ninth Heaven Realm.
Zong Yin saw her sincerity and looked at Cang Ji again. He had initially suspected that Fu Li was hiding someone that Heaven and Earth could not tolerate. But it was a fact that he had never seen Cang Ji before. No matter how fierce Cang Ji was, he was still not at fault.
Except for that piece of reverse scale.
“I’m afraid the reason you hid him here isn’t just to help him. The Canglong4 had not appeared for thousands of years, and it is even harder to find the right time to evolve into a dragon. I could not succeed even after seeking it for a hundred years. The reason you pick him up is likely because you have taken a fancy to that peculiarity of his. I know you are deeply depressed over Lord Linsong’s case, and you are determined to prove his innocence. But a word of caution. Fu Li, you saw with your own eyes how Yan Quan sword had beheaded the Supreme Father in front of Buddha; you saw how the Three Thousand Armored Warriors of Heaven were totally wiped out; you saw how Ninth Heaven had been awash in a sea of blood and buried under a mountain of corpses. Even if Lord Linsong used to be a good person, he had already sunk into the Way of the Devil after that incident. His death is not worth lamenting. You shouldn’t harbor any ill feelings towards the Supreme Lord, vainly attempting to use a Canglong to turn Heaven and Earth into chaos.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” Fu Li panicked and said, aghast. “How could you doubt my loyalty? The lives of all the birds and beasts from Can Li tree are all connected here. If I had the intention to rebel, would I have the face to return to the tree? If you don’t believe me, feel free to hand me over to those above. I’ve been through Zhui Hu Prison. Would I still be afraid?!”
Zong Yin finally stepped back and gave way. He said, “I can pretend not to know anything today, but this demon can no longer stay on the coast of the Eastern Sea. If you want to help him, then lead him onto the right path. From what I see, his nature is unrestrained and untameable. If he sets foot on a wrong path, he will surely become a calamity. Take him away.”
Fu Li’s expression was heavy as she raised her hands in a gesture of thanks. Cang Ji was just about to get up when Zong Yin spoke up again.
“He may follow you away, but the man in his bosom must stay.”
Cang Ji’s eyes moved, and he said in a hoarse voice. “Don’t even think about it. He’s my man. Why should I give him to you?”
“He’s your man or your meal?” Zong Yin asked.
Cang Ji wavered as he hugged Jing Lin tightly. Zong Yin remained where he was, having firm control over the way out. Fu Li sensed the situation deteriorating and was about to speak up again when Zong Yin turned his head to the side.
“I could understand going to the extent for a fish, but you also want to make such demands for a man. Why? Do you have a past affinity with mankind too? There are no mortals beneath Can Li Tree, and yet you wish for it. I’m afraid that’s not going to be easy. I’ve already allowed you to take him away, but you can’t even leave a man behind?”
Fu Li maintained her composure and cast a few glances at Cang Ji. She said, “If he is really a man, there is no problem leaving him with you. But he was sculpted out of stone; he just looked human. Silly boy, there is no need to conceal it anymore. It wouldn’t hurt to show him to this Great Master.”
“No way.” Cang Ji lowered and buried his head in Jing Lin’s hair, looking as he cherished him very much. “He’s mine, I don’t want to show him to anyone. I won’t be able to defeat him if he falls in love with this skin and takes it away by force.”
“There’s no need to hide him. I’ve never believed in love.” Zong Yin said.
Cang Ji scoffed. “You have relied on the higher status of your cultivation to censure me so many times today. Are you not afraid it will become a long-standing grudge the next time you and I meet again? I just took a shine to a piece of stone, and you want to forcibly steal a look at it. Do immortals always do things this way? Are they always this rude?”
“Don’t argue with me.” Zong Yin said, “Show him to me quickly.”
Cang Ji lifted the hair on the side of Jing Lin’s face, revealing a vague shape underneath. Zong Yin could only see a profile, but that complexion that was whiter than snow was so alluring and aloof to the point that it did not seem to be that of a living man. Cang Ji’s palm was pressed against Jing Lin’s back. In this long moment, he almost believed that Jing Lin was dead. Jing Lin’s head was inclined to the side, motionless, and at Cang Ji’s disposal. There was no warmth in his body. The temperature and moisture that Cang Ji had initially felt had all turned cold and hard. His skin felt satiny to the touch, like porcelain. There was no sign of life.
Cang Ji’s heart beated uncontrollably. He wondered in alarm and doubt. Was Jing Lin awake? Or dead?
Fu Li took a step forward and said tartly, “Why would you even want a stone? Can’t you just let this silly boy have his fun with the stone so he won’t stir up trouble in the mortal world?”
Zong Yin remained silent when he saw that she was angry to the point of tears. He was skeptical, but could not voice his suspicions to Fu Li. He stared at Cang Ji for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry. I have a duty to check. You may leave.”
But there was no relief in Fu Li’s heart. She was aware of Zong Yin’s character. The incident today would have definitely aroused his suspicions. He could not put them in a spot, but he would investigate in secret. However, they did not have a choice. The longer they stayed, the harder it would be to extract themselves from their predicament if more people got involved.
“I’ll take this garden with me and leave no trace. We won’t give you a hard time.” Fu Li said.
Zong Yin nodded slightly, retreated a few steps, and transformed into a Jiaolong. Before he took to the sky, he said to Cang Ji, “I don’t know why you were born with a reverse scale. I expect you are not far from evolving into a dragon. Behave yourself, or there will be bloodshed the next time we meet.”
Cang Ji did not even look at him, giving no indication of how much he had heard. As soon as Zong Yin left, Fu Li quickly stepped forward and looked at Jing Lin in shock.
Jing Lin’s brow wrinkled, and he opened his eyes, choking on his blood. His breathing was weak as his chest heaved again, and the iciness in his limbs slowly faded away.
It had only been a hundred years, and that little snake frolicking in the water beneath his seat had become so powerful that it had almost shocked him into giving himself away.
Cang Ji met Jing Lin’s eyes. Before he had time to adjust himself, he saw the frostiness in Jing Lin’s eyes. Jing Lin stared at him until it made Cang Ji nervous. He had a pair of exquisite eyes. When his eyes were cold, they would look haughty, sharp, and extremely wild. But when his eyes were smiling, they would overflow with liveliness and cheerfulness. Cang Ji let his smile reach his eyes, looking earnest and sincere as he raised one of Jing Lin’s hands and held it in his palm.
“I was so scared. I thought you wouldn’t wake up.” Cang Ji lowered his eyes and said.
Cang Ji’s grip on Jing Lin’s hand was so tight that Jing Lin thought his hand would break. He could not break free. Cang Ji felt uneasy about Fu Li’s presence and hid the bite wound on Jing Lin’s hand in his own hand. Given Jing Lin’s temperament, he was sure that Jing Lin would not ask Fu Li for help.
As expected, Jing Lin gradually let out a cold smile and said softly, “I just took a nap, and you’ve grown up so much.”
Cang Ji picked him up and said, “That’s right. You don’t have to be afraid in the future. I will treat you well, just like how you treat me.”
“There’s no need to stand on ceremony.” Jing Lin let Cang Ji pick him up. “Just keep whatever I’ve given you.”
Jing Lin narrowed his eyes and said lazily, “I’m afraid you can’t afford to feed him.”
It suddenly hit Fu Li, and she turned towards Cang Ji, seething in anger. “How dare you?! I was wondering how you could have grown up in such a short period of time when you were just a child the last I saw you. Even your disposition had stabilized so much! You actually dared to consume Jiu Ge’s flesh and blood?!”
Cang Ji embraced Jing Lin tightly and nimbly dodged her. He said with aggrievement, “Jiejie, it’s a misunderstanding! The situation was so critical that I had no choice. Otherwise, none of us could survive today if that Hai Jiao had gotten a clear look.” He inclined his head to sniff Jing Lin’s hair and smiled. “Besides, I respect and adore Jing Lin so much. How I wish I could hold him in my palm every day and pamper him. How could I bear to take a few more mouthfuls of him?”
Even if he wanted to take a mouthful, it had to be a time when he was fully prepared and would not leave any loose ends behind.
Fu Li noted that Cang Ji differed totally from when he was a child; even his inner state seemed to have changed. This kind of demon was certainly unusual! However, Jing Lin did not look like he was being held hostage. For a moment, Fu Li was uncertain.
“Return Jiu Ge to me. I’ll not pursue today’s matter.” Fu Li had no wish to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
“I’m afraid.” Cang Ji did not want to antagonize Fu Li today, so he said, “But what I’ve said is all true. If jiejie doesn’t believe me, you can ask Jing Lin. Would he rather let me hug him, or let you hug him?
Jing Lin looked at Cang Ji for a moment. Cang Ji felt like his gaze was a solid, icy cold hand roaming around his neck.
“I’ve raised him for so many days, he can take a few steps more.” Jing Lin shifted his eyes away. “Go to the porch.”
Cang Ji smiled at Fu Li and stepped out of the door. He asked, “What are you looking for?”
“I’ll move the garden away. It won’t be too late for Jiu Ge to search for it when we arrive at Can Li.” Fu Li followed closely behind Cang Ji.
Jing Lin did not answer. His eyes searched through the edge of the eaves. After a pause, he asked, “Where is the copper bell?”
Cang Ji blew at the broken rope. “I’m afraid it was lost when the mountain was overturned.”
“I can’t lose it.” Jing Lin said, “I want that copper bell.”
Cang Ji wanted to tease him, but Jing Lin did not look like he was joking. The gears in his mind turned, and he asked in a low voice, “What object is that important? Do you use it to lull you to sleep? I rarely see you treasuring it that much.”
Jing Lin raised his chin slightly and motioned for Cang Ji to move closer to him. Cang Ji lowered his head towards Jing Lin’s lips, feeling that looking down at Jing Lin like this was quite a sight to take in.
“What you have devoured was just a couple hundred years of my cultivation.” Jing Lin said, “What truly matters is all in the bell.”
“I’ve only tasted a mouthful; I can’t tell what’s genuine or not.” Cang Ji was unhurried. “What if you deceive me?”
Unexpectedly, Jing Lin chuckled and the warm flow of air tickled Cang Ji’s earlobe. Cang Ji raised his eyebrows slightly. The corners of his lips curled up in a smile, but the smile did not reach his eyes. He said, “You’re so sure I’ll look for it.”
Jing Lin answered, “Aren’t you calling the shots now?”
“I can search for it if you want me to.” Cang Ji whispered, “Make this jiejie stay away, and I’ll go wherever you point to.”
If Fu Li kept following, Cang Ji would not dare to act rashly. He already knew the benefits of Jing Lin’s flesh and blood. Right at this moment, Jing Lin was like a piece of meat dangling right before his nose. It was definitely impossible for Cang Ji to have a heart of benevolence and not to be greedy. Moreover, their positions were now reversed; he could hold Jing Lin in his arms, or flung him to the ground. He was at the helm, and the pleasure of looking down at someone instead of looking up was indescribable.
Jing Lin said, “She has to hold you to lead you in the right direction.”
Cang Ji played dumb. He inserted his fingers into the gaps between Jing Lin’s fingers and lifted their holding hands. “My dear Jing Lin, aren’t we already holding each other? If it’s not enough, I can even let you wrap yourself around me or hug me.”
After waiting and not getting a response, Fu Li tentatively stepped forward. Cang Ji took a step back and patted Jing Lin’s lower back with the palm that was behind Jing Lin, coaxing him amiably.
“Jing Lin, what were you going to say to this jiejie?”
- 海蛟 literally Sea Jiao (Dragon), a 蛟龙 Jiaolong (Jiao dragon), or Jiao, is a mythical, aquatic creature capable of invoking storms and floods; sometimes also known as a flood dragon.
- 逆鳞 reverse scale; a piece of scale that is reversed on a dragon’s throat or neck that’s considered to be precious and important to them. It’s said that the dragon will kill anyone in fury if they touched that scale. It is now used to refer to someone’s weakness, sore spot, or most cherished and important thing. For example, touching one’s reverse scale is an idiom that could be said to be touching someone’s sore spot, attacking their weakness, or rubbing someone the wrong way, etc.
- 龙门 Dragon Gate, mythical dragon gate where a carp can transform and evolve into a dragon
- 苍龙 Cang Long, or Blue Dragon, is another name for the Azure Dragon (青龙), one of the Four Symbols, mythological creatures that are viewed as the guardians of the four cardinal directions – The Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise of the North.