"I can't be that unlucky," Li Jinglong responded quietly.
In his hand, Hongjun held a stack of paper, and on his back was a fish he piggybacked; like this, he entered Jinchang Fang. Since it was still early, Zhao Zilong was still half asleep against his back, his fish mouth opening now and then as he yawned.
“Do you think it’d be useful if I go put up the posters for the missing cat?”
“With those chicken scratch scribbles, who would even be able to tell that that’s a cat?” the carp yao responded.
Hongjun glanced around at his surroundings, and taking advantage of the lack of people on the street this early in the morning, threw out a grappling hook, flying up to the eaves before climbing the Dayan Pagoda. He deftly leaped up level by level, and when he made it to the top of the pagoda, he sat down, hugging his knees.
Under that blue sky with a few white clouds floating by, the thousands of roofs of Chang’an were bathed in the early morning light and the gentle breeze. In the Divine Land, humans had actually managed to build a city of such majesty and splendour, and his heart was filled with happiness and awe as he gazed upon it.
Hongjun lowered his head to look at that stack of posters for the missing cat that he had drawn before he went out, and in his heart he thought about how easy it would have been to resolve if he was back at Yaojin Palace. Qing Xiong and Chong Ming both could speak with birds, all they would have to do was send two falcons out to search; it’d be much faster than having him do it.
“After enjoying the breeze, we should go back,” the carp yao said. “It’s so dry outside in the autumn, it’s not very comfortable.”
“I think he’s very pitiful,” Hongjun said. “Everyone is struggling. I should go help him search a little.”
The carp yao responded, “You can’t sympathize with everyone.”
Hongjun asked, “If we find the cat, then would the rest of the officials be a little nicer to him in the future?”
Last night, thanks to the carp yao, Hongjun had more or less understood the general tiers that the officials were rigidly split into, and also the reason why Li Jinglong experienced so little success. Even though he couldn’t fully understand the nuances, he grasped the basics; it was because the emperor and the major bureaucrats didn’t look upon him favorably.
“Don’t be naive,” the carp yao said. “The prejudices of humans are hard to dispel, and as soon as some people break from the mold, their fellow humans will do things that are more evil and vicious than what the yao tribe is capable of. Who would confess that Li Jinglong has skills, if it means that they’re just shooting themselves in the foot? The way I see it, they’re just going to let him keep tracking down their missing dogs and cats.”
Hongjun was struck with an idea, and he wondered out loud, “Why exactly did this cat run away? Was it scared away by something?”
“Your train of thought is the same as mine. I was also considering that it may have seen something it wasn’t supposed to.” Li Jinglong’s voice suddenly rang out from the uppermost balcony of Dayan Pagoda. Hongjun was so startled he almost slid off the roof.
He and Li Jinglong had actually had the same idea - both of them thought of climbing to the tallest point in Chang’an to stare out at the scenery before them as they pondered. Hongjun lowered the hook to let Li Jinglong climb up too, and both of them sat on the top of the pagoda.
“When did you get here?” Hongjun had a guilty conscience, so he couldn’t help but keep glancing at Li Jinglong.
Li Jinglong replied, “When you said ‘I think he’s very pitiful.’”
Hongjun felt extremely awkward, but Li Jinglong merely furrowed his brows and said, “Just now I went to the manor of Lady Qinguo. That night, the cat saw something and was scared off. Cats are especially sensitive with matters related to evil, but once they’ve found a supply of food they’ll stay for good. In these streets of Chang’an, where would a cat find better food than in Lady Qinguo’s home? So I’m guessing that to this cat, this incident was very frightening, to the point of causing it to not want to return.”
“Maybe it got lost?” Hongjun asked.
“That’s not very likely,” Li Jinglong replied, shaking his head.
“Someone hid it?” Hongjung suggested.
“Who would be daring enough to go and steal Lady Qinguo’s cat?” Li Jinglong pointed out. “The Six Armies have been searching for it for a whole ten days, and they’ve posted their reward everywhere, so its whereabouts should have been known days ago… If there haven’t been any accidents, then it must be hiding somewhere in the city, and I’m guessing it has to be in a location close to the Qinguo manor. Let’s go.”
Hongjun suddenly felt that Li Jinglong was actually very smart.
Li Jinglong leaped off the roof, but Hongjun turned around and flung out his grappling hook, leaping from the Dayan Pagoda to the nearby rooftops, pulling Li Jinglong up with him. The two of them moved along the rooftops the entire way, and when they reached the end of one they simply hopped across the gap.
“Do you think Chang’an has a lot of yaoguai?” Hongjun suddenly felt curious, directing the question to Li Jinglong who was walking in front.
Li Jinglong answered: “The demonic aura around the city is very heavy and has been almost impossible to clear for a long time now. Every night, a bunch of yao come out and wildly wander about; it doesn’t look anything like the Chang’an in front of your eyes.”
“How did you sense it?” Hongjun had also been somewhat aware of it, but it was nothing as strong as Li Jinglong’s awareness. Every night, after the three thousand drumbeats were finished, all of Chang’an seemed to take on an entirely new demeanor. Clearly, there were events beyond his knowledge happening in places he didn’t know about.
Li Jinglong patted the sword at his waist and didn’t respond.
“Did this sword tell you? How many yaoguai do you think are in Chang’an?” Hongjun asked again.
“Tens of thousands.” Li Jinglong glanced back at Hongjun.
Hongjun remembered what Chong Ming told him when he left: the city of Chang’an was overrun with those of the yao tribe, but he had been here for so long without seeing any yaoguai at all. Did they hide themselves well, or was Hongjun just too dull to sense them?
“Monkey.” Hongjun suddenly said to the carp yao on his back.
Both Li Jinglong and Hongjun felt that they were lost on where to start searching as they stood on the rooftops just outside of the Eastern Market. Suddenly, something flew at them from the side, hitting Li Jinglong square in the face. Both of them were startled and quickly turned to look at the same time, but all they heard were a few ji ji ji from a small monkey squatting on the rooftop of the Jade Flower Hall located just outside the Eastern Market as it watched the two of them.
“This…” Just as Li Jinglong was about to rush up and shoo it away, Hongjun suddenly remembered that poor monkey he had set free that one day at the market, and he smiled. “Oh! It’s you!”
Hongjun waved at that monkey, and the monkey, dragging a clanking chain behind it, ran over to him. After escaping its captor, the monkey seemed to be in better health than before; it had obtained some food from several kind-hearted citizens, and in its hand it was clutching a moldy steamed bun, repeatedly offering it to Hongjun for him to eat.
Hongjun could only accept that moldy piece of gratitude, which he pulled apart and gave it to the carp yao. The carp yao was unhappy at this development and protested, “This steamed bun…”
“Just eat it.” Hongjun tore the bun into small pieces and stuffed them one by one into the carp yao’s mouth, before pulling out one of his throwing knives and undoing the chains around the little monkey’s neck.
Li Jinglong said, “The monkeys that are kept by monkey handlers can all understand human speech. Since it’s been running about freely these past few days in this general area, you should ask it if it’s seen that cat.”
Hongjun thought in his heart, right! And he hurriedly pulled out his hand-drawn picture of the cat to show the monkey. Li Jinglong interjected, “The cat you’ve drawn… is this supposed to be a cat?!”
Li Jinglong’s expression turned ugly again, and he almost fell off the roof. On the piece of paper, Hongjun had merely drawn three circles that intersected with each other, a wobbly, crooked, caterpillar-like tail, and two pointy ears. It looked like a yaoguai.
The monkey tilted its head and “ji”-ed a few times, before indicating that Hongjun should come with him as it ran off.
“No way!” the carp yao said. “It really understood the picture!”
Hongjun hurriedly picked it up, and with Li Jinglong in tow they tailed the monkey all the way to the outskirts of Pingkang Li. The Eastern Market had long since opened, and below them the busy citizens were bustling about on their own errands. Li Jinglong still felt somewhat traumatized by past events, so he gave the crowds a wide berth, hunching over to avoid being seen.
As that monkey came to a stop, Hongjun saw their target and let out an “ah”.
Between the two azure towers of Pingkang Li’s Nightingale of the Spring Dawn and Yishi Lan, on the edge of the roof, there was a lump of something that looked like a white feather duster. It didn’t move at all as it merely laid there, enjoying the sunlight.
“Is that it?” Hongjun immediately turned to look.
“Don’t rush, don’t rush!” Li Jinglong couldn’t believe it, they had actually found it! Clearly, Hongjun’s luck was extremely good, so much that it couldn’t be surpassed. Catching the cat wouldn’t give him a sense of vindication, but it would be a good slap to the face for the Six Armies… But the entire city had been searching high and low for this cat without any luck, how could matters be so easily resolved in his own hands? To him, this was unbelievable.
“Should we call Mo Rigen and the others over?” Hongjun asked. “What if this isn’t the one we’re looking for?”
Just now Li Jinglong had said it himself: if it was really due to their good luck, then they shouldn’t beat the grass and frighten away the cat. They should first tell the others; who knew if it was actually the right cat?
But a little while ago, they had been informed by the residents of the Qinguo manor that this breed of cat was very rare. If they searched the whole city, they might not even be able to find a second one.
“No need.” Li Jinglong said quietly as he watched it vigilantly. “They’re probably lazing off somewhere. Let’s catch it first, it doesn’t matter if it’s the right one. I’ll sneak around to the back, you come at it from the front. Did you bring a net?”
“Yes, yes.” Hongjun grew nervous from his tone alone.
“Whatever you do, don’t startle the people walking below,” Li Jinglong commanded. “We don’t want it to run off again.”
Hongjun hurriedly nodded his head, only to see that Li Jinglong made a gesture of pressing down a little, before he hunched over and snuck around in a large circle.
“He doesn’t need to go that far, right,” the carp yao commented. “It’s only a cat.”
Hongjun: “In a bit, you…”
The carp yao: “No discussion! I’m not helping you guys flank it! Have you forgotten what I am?!”
Hongjun remembered that fish yao were also fish, and therefore harbored a deep instinctual horror towards cats and bears, so he had to let go of that idea. In this span of time, Li Jinglong had taken a huge detour, circling around so much that Hongjun couldn’t see him anymore, before finally approaching from more than fifty paces away as a small black dot that steadily drew closer.
Hongjun held the net, carefully getting closer, doing his best to not make a sound. The cat was still in a lazy and relaxed pose, sunning itself on the roof. Closer, closer, and as they grew even closer, the cat in the middle didn’t move at all. Its flank rose and fell with each breath it took, as if it was asleep.
When he was less than a zhang away from the cat, Li Jinglong stopped and gestured to Hongjun. Hongjun hunched his body, both hands clutching the net, and he steadily took one step, then another, towards the cat...
In that moment that cat opened its eyes, and upon seeing Li Jinglong, both of them had a brief staredown. Li Jinglong hollered, “Go!”
Right after that, Li Jinglong jumped towards it, and Hongjun spread open the net, rushing up.
In Li Jinglong’s ideal scenario, this cat would be scared by him and leap towards Hongjun, thus getting perfectly snared in the net. However, that cat suddenly turned into a swift shadow instead, sliding through the space between his legs and downwards.
Li Jinglong: “!!!”
Hongjun followed suit as he turned sideways and slid by, following the cat’s path downwards.
“Don’t run!” Hongjun held the net, and just as he was about to catch the cat, his foot slipped into thin air as he stepped on a loose tile, and in that moment a thought crossed his mind --
This cat was way too clever! It had outwitted both of them effortlessly!
In the next second, Hongjun fell off the roof of Nightingale in the Spring Dawn towards the lower levels of Yishi Lan. Down below was a spread of dishes that had just been properly arranged, but in less time than it took to say this sentence, Li Jinglong grabbed him and pulled him back.
Hongjun looked at the alley below. Right below him was a large soup pot, and in his heart he thought, that really was too close, too close. If he had fallen down like that, he probably would have been fine, but Zhao Zilong would only have been able to stay forever in that soup pot.
“Shh.” Li Jinglong took Hongjun with him as they moved back a step, only to see that cat jumping into the third floor of Yishi Lan, sliding through a crack of a slightly opened door, vanishing just like that.
Hongjun panted heavily and said, “I tried my best…”
“It’s alright,” Li Jinglong assured him. “We know where it is, so now it’ll be easy. Let’s go!”
The two of them leapt over, lightly dropping down from the eaves. Hongjun quietly said, “Let me, so that you don’t…”
“I can’t be that unlucky,” Li Jinglong quietly responded.
Yishi Lan was the favorite brothel of the scholars in the city of Chang’an, and even the side courtyard was decorated very elegantly. After entering through the window, they landed in a narrow hallway which had numerous rooms leading off it, each of them with names like 'Qiang Jin Jiu', 'Spring Dawn', 'Yu Tai Chun', and so on.
“Split up and search,” Li Jinglong said. “Have Zhao Zilong come and help too, and the monkey as well. Hongjun, go tell it to do so.”
The carp yao had originally refused, but Hongjun already set it down, so even as it trembled, it had to stick its head outside a slightly opened set of doors to peek in. The monkey, after receiving a directive from Hongjun, comprehended in no time at all and went to check another room.
“After finding it, come out quickly and quietly,” Hongjun said. “You don’t need to catch it.” Then he shoved the carp yao into the room.
“You go left, I’ll take the ones on the right,” Li Jinglong quietly said.
The sun had risen to the height of three bamboo poles, and the women of Yishi Lan had gone who knows where as Hongjun entered a room and looked around. The scent of cosmetics drowned out his sense of smell; every room was decorated lavishly, and he guessed that every woman in this section was a red card. Li Jinglong had indeed guessed very accurately; this cat had found a place close to the Qinguo manor to stay.
The carp yao entered a room, still feeling a little choked up from the steamed bun he had been force-fed earlier, so he ran to the basin of water to drink from it. As he drank, he felt that it tasted a little strange and said, “Water for washing feet, ugh, unlucky”, and stopped drinking. After looking around, he suddenly saw a painting on the wall. It was one of Zhang Xuan's, titled Carp in the Creek in Spring. The carp in the picture looked lively and realistic, like the gently swaying branches of the willow, and Zhao Zilong opened his mouth and stared without moving a muscle.
“Pretty girl! Pretty girl!” The carp yao got closer, and its saliva almost dribbled out of its mouth.
Just at this moment, the sound of claws scratching on wood came from behind him. The carp yao froze in terror, and his scales and leg hairs all stood up as a sound issued from his mouth. He slowly turned his head back to look.
That chausie was squatting on the top of the cabinet, its eyes, one blue, one yellow, focused unerringly on him, with no good intentions in them.
The carp yao temporarily lost his wits and loudly shouted, “Ah, someone help --!”
In the neighboring rooms, Li Jinglong and Hongjun heard the shout from the middle room at the same time, and like a gust of wind they both swept in.
That chausie had already leapt down from the top of the cabinet directly towards the carp yao! The carp yao was so startled it dove underneath the bed, hiding itself.
When Hongjun and Li Jinglong pushed open the door and rushed in, that cat meowed from under the bottom of the bed. The carp yao wildly shouted, squirming out from the other end of the bed as it ran for its life, and as it waved his tail around in agitation it hid in the cabinet.
“I found it!” Li Jinglong turned around and closed the door. This way, the cat couldn’t escape.
Hongjun climbed under the bed to catch the cat, but this wooden bed was different from the one that he usually slept on. This one was made of expensive mahogany, and it leaned up against the wall. The three sides that faced the outside were all closed off, with only the empty space between railings as thin openings. Hongjun saw that the cat was currently hiding in the darkness, its two yin yang eyes focused on him.
Li Jinglong stuck his arm in to catch the cat, but the cat ducked deeper inside. To the side, Hongjun asked, “What should I do?”
Li Jinglong’s elbow was too well-built, and it got stuck in that railing.
Li Jinglong: “...”
Hongjun stuck his hand in, but that cat just calmly licked its claws, wholly uncaring of the two people in front of it.
“I’ll lift up the bed.”
“As soon as you lift it, it’ll run,” Hongjun predicted. “Lift it up just a little bit, I’ll slide underneath to catch it.”
So Li Jinglong used his strength, and with a shouted “up”, lifted up that four hundred and some jin large bed, revealing a small opening which one person could feasibly squeeze into. Hongjun immediately took the opportunity to roll into it.
There was not a lot of space underneath the bed, and it seemed like it was piled with some wooden poles, hanging scrolls, and so on. In that instant, that cat had puffed up and readied itself to escape, but Hongjun reached out a hand and grabbed its claw, saying, “Caught it!”
Li Jinglong said, “Grab it firmly! Don’t let it run away again!”
Just at this moment, a noise came from the outside.
“I can’t come at night, so I can only settle for seeing you during the day…”
Li Jinglong instantly turned his head. That man’s voice seemed very familiar, and his pupils contracted quickly. He tried to viciously pull his arm out, and with a sudden spurt of force he managed to tug it free.
Hongjun hugged that cat, using his knees to hold up the bottom of the bed, doing his best to keep that wooden bed up just a little.
“Zhangshi, please lift the bed again so that I can get out…”
But before he had finished his sentence, Li Jinglong tumbled in after him, and at the same time he lifted up the bed before carefully putting it down.
Hongjun wanted to say something, but Li Jinglong hugged him tightly from behind, swiftly covering his mouth with one hand so that he would not dare to speak a word. Just as the wooden bed was put down, the door opened, and a man’s footsteps, heavy and intent, accompanied a woman’s laughing voice into the room.
The two of them sat on the bed, and the man spoke, “That time, Li Jinglong went around to the Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, which caused a whole investigation into the Longwu Army by the Censorate, which is why I couldn’t come these past few days. But you have always been on my mind.”
Hongjun opened his eyes wide, tilting his head to the side and shooting a glance at Li Jinglong. Li Jinglong slowly loosened his hand, putting a finger to his lips in a gesture for quiet, and he continued to cover the mouth of the cat in Hongjun’s embrace. Hongjun hugged the cat, and Li Jinglong hugged Hongjun from behind. While they were squished in this small, narrow space, Hongjun felt Li Jinglong’s heartbeat grow violent. That chest was broad and powerful, and his body was also giving off a lot of heat.
Li Jinglong’s face was full of rage, if only because the person who had come to Yishi Lan was actually his own immediate superior from the Longwu Army: Hu Sheng, the Commander of the Longwu Army. Originally it was exactly because Hu Sheng didn’t believe Li Jinglong that he was endlessly mocked by his peers, and had been subsequently ridiculed by Yang Guozhong.
At this time they only heard Hu Sheng on the bed hugging and kissing that woman, wildly calling out “Jin Yun” as he did so. Jin Yun began to breathe heavily, and they rolled together on the bed, their words instantly becoming ten times more romantic.
Hongjun’s heartbeat also began to race. He was sixteen and yet unaware of many realities of life, and here he was, being hugged from behind by Li Jinglong in a very intimate position as they listened to the sounds coming from above. To him, the words were a huge shock, and Hu Sheng in his mind was someone who could come up with endless variations of the same words, and Hongjun’s face and ears burned as he listened.
What was even more awkward was that he felt Li Jinglong’s breathing become much heavier, and there was something hard poking against him.
Hongjun swallowed heavily. The arm that was hugging him tightened subconsciously, and Hongjun’s arm that was hugging the cat tightened as well. That cat was being half-strangled and felt very uncomfortable, so it kept scratching with its claws as it continued to struggle.
Hongjun was afraid that it’d make some sound and startle the two people in the bed, so he caught the cat’s claws, holding them in place. Unexpectedly, the cat’s claw hooked on to the rough tarp that was covering several of the random objects underneath the bed, pulling it towards them.
As the rough cloth was moved aside, a dead person’s head appeared for a moment, and Hongjun leaned backwards as he let loose an involuntary noise.
Li Jinglong: “!!!”
In a lightning-fast flash of movement, Li Jinglong first covered up Hongjun’s mouth, then his eyes, protecting him tightly in his grasp.
Luckily, at that moment, Jin Yun shouted loudly on the bed, and the sound covered up Hongjun’s noise. Hu Sheng was still waxing poetic with his sweet words, so he too was unaware.
The hairs on the nape of Hongjun’s neck stood up, and he felt chilled to the bones; this was the first time that he had stared at a dead person’s face from such a close distance, and he had almost been frightened out of his wits. After he recovered a little he could only violently pant, and Li Jinglong’s own face was filled with horror and disbelief as he squeezed his arm, indicating that Hongjun shouldn’t be scared.
On the bed, Hu Sheng was also breathing heavily; clearly, they were done, and he was now speaking with Jin Yun.
Hongjun took in that corpse’s face and realized that that dead person seemed to have been here for a long time. Its mouth was open, but the skin on its face had already started to turn black, and the place where the two eyes should have been were instead two empty sockets. Li Jinglong gently reached out a hand, untying that cloth, revealing that desiccated body which still had a white cloth robe on, its posture fixed in a motion of horror as it squeezed itself into the innermost part of the bed.
Hongjun tentatively stroked Li Jinglong’s arm a bit, realizing that it was also covered in goosebumps.
Hu Sheng smiled. “I’m going.”
“You’re leaving just like this?” Jin Yun was unwilling to part.
“I’ll come another day to visit you again,” Hu Sheng hugged Jin Yun and "bo", kissed her on the face. He put on his clothes, pushed open the door, and Jin Yun went along to see him off.
Not long after, the two of them finally climbed out from under that bed. Li Jinglong couldn’t stop panting, and as he met Hongjun’s gaze, their eyes were filled with confusion.
Hongjun said, “What should we do?”
Li Jinglong searched through his thoughts for a moment, and said, “It’s not suitable for us to stay here for long. These matters are very important, we should first make sure to not startle them.”
moon: so nam and i were wondering what exactly hongjun’s cat poster looked like, and we agreed that the one from the donghua was too much like a cat to work, so…
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), opal.