"I hope that this sharp sword that is the Exorcism Department will never have the opportunity to leave its sheath"
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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“Wait a little,” Hongjun hurried to indicate to Yang Yuhuan not to say anything. “Let me think.”
He didn’t understand the hearts of people, but he wasn’t dumb, and as he thought about the causes and the effects, he gradually began to understand the series of events. The Yu Zaoyun that Lady Guoguo had spoken of… her little sister… was perhaps another fox yao, the white fox that Yang Yuhuan had seen before!
Wu Qiyu and Yu Zaoyun, both of the fox yao were sisters! In that instant, Hongjun grasped a key detail: Wu Qiyu had first possessed Lady Guoguo’s body, before she had Yu Zaoyun take advantage of Yang Yuhuan’s weakness to try and take over her body… and with the soul-sucking power of the fox yao, they caused the hunpo of the scholars to be trapped in their bodies, using this to change forms swiftly and replace the scholars attending the imperial examination.
However, his father Kong Xuan seemed to have known that Yu Zaoyun’s target was Yang Yuhuan, so he had helped her successfully avoid this bout of misfortune. Hongjun could almost see the scene of Yu Zaoyun sneaking in in the middle of the night to suck out Yang Yuhuan’s spirit, before being repelled by the sigil that his father had drawn on her body, which caused her yao power to be destroyed.
“What did the sigil look like?” Hongjun continued to ask. “Do you still remember?”
Yang Yuhuan pondered for a moment while looking Hongjun up and down, before shaking her head. Back then, the sigil had been inscribed on her back, and Yang Yuhuan had not had a chance to see it upfront.
But what was with that situation where Wu Qiyu had captured Yang Yuhuan and brought her to the observation deck? What was the intent behind that? Hongjun’s heart began to thump violently. Perhaps Yu Zaoyun was not yet dead! Perhaps, this very instant, she was still living in Yang Yuhuan’s body! If that was really the case, then had his father merely sealed away the fox yao and not ensured her death?
“Let me check again,” Hongjun said without another moment’s delay, and for the third time, he placed his fingers on Yang Yuhuan’s pulse point.
Yang Yuhuan submitted to Hongjun’s inspection as she said, “With that bout of heavy illness, in the end, it was Doctor Kong who mixed some medicine and had me drink it, which caused me to slowly get better.”
“Later, did you take any more medicine?” Hongjun asked.
Yang Yuhuan smiled gently as she responded, “The illness was cured from the root on up.”
From that last inspection, Hongjun hadn’t found anything at all, but at least one thing was certain: before the fox yao could steal her soul, something unexpected had happened to it, which was why it had no more traces of yao energy left now.
“Congratulations.” After thinking for a while, Hongjun decided to not tell Yang Yuhuan about this, and he spoke. “Wu Qiyu originally wanted to steal your body, but due to some unforeseen mishap, she failed. I imagine this happened around the time that you fell ill.”
Yang Yuhuan said, “So she pretended to be my older sister for ten odd years? No wonder, when I was young, Big Sister never liked me, but after that heavy illness, she became very concerned about me. In these years, she was actually… but since she was a yao, why was she so caring towards me?”
Hongjun looked into Yang Yuhuan’s eyes. After a long while, he said, “Perhaps she really wanted a younger sister?”
Tears welled up in Yang Yuhuan’s eyes, and she was silent for a long time. As those tears slowly trickled down her cheeks, she stifled a sob in her throat as she responded, “I don’t dare to cry, because my eldest sister actually turned out to be a yaoguai that brought ruin upon this country and was a bane of the people. Though His Majesty has been gracious in not interrogating my Yang family’s crime, in my eyes, no matter if she is a yao or a human, she will always be my eldest sister. Do you understand that?”
Hongjun hadn’t expected that Yang Yuhuan would actually begin to cry, and he slowly began to understand her grief. Though Lady Guoguo was a fox yao, in Yang Yuhuan’s eyes she was a loved one -- and upon losing a loved one, who wouldn’t be sad? Yet, she didn’t dare to say anything, and even less so did she dare to mourn too much in front of Li Longji.
Hongjun rolled down his sleeve, which still had a fishy odor, offering it to Yang Yuhuan. She managed to wipe her tears with it, and Hongjun sat there quietly accompanying her, not saying a single word.
“How about I sing a song for you?” Hongjun said.
Yang Yuhuan didn’t respond, so Hongjun began to sing quietly, “In spring the river rises as high as the sea, the bright moon over the sea seemed to be born of the tide…”
That day, after listening to Li Guinian sing this, he learned this piece as well. In this instant, as that handsome youth’s voice began to sing quietly, though there was no accompanying music, it still held that gentle and comforting feeling to it.
The stars above were brilliant, and the night wind was bone-piercingly chilly as Li Longji and Li Jinglong walked on the plaza. Li Jinglong was young and vigorous, so he was not afraid of the cold, but Li Longji was old. Li Jinglong was afraid that several continued days of working hard combined with the cold wind would cause the emperor to go back and catch a cold, so he brought up the suggestion that they return to the hall to wait, but Li Longji waved it off.
“When Zhen was about your age, Zhen had to hide his abilities and bide his time, subjecting himself to the attacks of many people’s rumors and gossip in the palace. Now that Zhen thinks about it, the Zhen of that period was very similar to how you were some years ago.”
Li Jinglong had also heard of such a matter before; when Empress Wu was on the throne, in order to protect himself, Li Longji fooled around every day to maintain a facade of being mud that couldn’t even be plastered to a wall, which was how he had managed to survive until he overthrew Shangguan Wan’er and her group. However, in his heart, he thought, back then you were merely biding your time, but I’m just purely unlucky.
“But people live in a society, and no matter if they are gold and jade covered in dust, there will be a day where they can release their brilliance,” Li Longji continued. “This point is one where you and Zhen are very alike.”
Li Jinglong hurried to say that he dare not aspire to that, before he responded, “If it weren’t for my brothers of the Exorcism Department putting their lives on the line to defeat the yao, this subject would only be a ruffian at best.”
Li Longji began to smile, and he patted Li Jinglong’s shoulder as he said with great feeling, “But as soon as you pick this road to travel, you should know that it will not be easy to traverse in the future. Though this is an unkind way to put it, but perhaps, under Heng’er’s command, none of you will need to reveal your identities to the public.”
After hearing that sentence that Li Heng had spoken tonight, “I hope that this sharp sword that is the Exorcism Department will never have the opportunity to leave its sheath”, Li Jinglong had already understood in his heart. The power of the Exorcism Department was a double-edged sword. Though it could protect the Great Tang, as soon as they rebelled, they would also be able to shake the very foundations of the country, bringing great calamity to the citizens. For Li Longji to bring it up once again meant that it was a warning.
Technically, the one method for the Exorcism Department to never threaten the power of the imperial court was to have them maintain their absolute independence, which meant not participating in politics, not conspiring with others, not receiving merits, and not even having the opportunity to get involved in discussing government affairs. Even officials of the imperial court shouldn’t understand too much about the Exorcism Department.
Li Longji’s meaning was very clear: from this moment on, you all should not expect any promotions in ranks, any announcements of your achievements to the world or receiving rewards for them, or any chance to make contact with officials of the imperial court and get involved in court politics. You all must only listen to the crown prince and conduct matters discreetly without coming into the limelight. Otherwise, as soon as you receive the admiration of too many citizens and your name becomes famous, things will only get more and more troublesome as time passes.
This was also the solution that Li Longji had come up with, for such a situation with no solution.
But, for a man living in this world, how few of them would be able to accept living a life that was buried in oblivion?
Li Jinglong was silent for a moment, before he said, “This subject fully understands.”
Upon hearing that, Li Longji nodded.
In the horse carriage, Hongjun sang the last line. Yang Yuhuan’s emotions finally calmed, and despite her still-reddened eyes, the corners of her mouth curved ever so slightly upwards in a mournful smile.
“This time, with you coming back to Chang’an,” Yang Yuhuan asked, “was it to thoroughly investigate the matter of your parents’ deaths?”
Hongjun nodded. Yang Yuhuan then said, “After that epidemic, your paternal grandfather’s family was almost all gone, but as for your mother’s side of the family, they were a prominent family in Hexi before your birth. Your maternal grandfather was once the provincial governor of Hexi, and I remember that you still have an uncle. His name is one that I’ve forgotten, but 15 years ago he was promoted to the position of county governor of Jinchang. However, after the matter with suppressing the Xiongnu invasion, he was demoted, and I don’t know if he was reassigned to Shazhou or Guazhou.”
“You are all saviors of my life, and if you have any needs, you may go to the Chancellor’s manor. Ask the housekeeper to pass the message on to my older brother, and at that time, he can help you look into the matter. After your uncle returns to court to make his report, you can at least try to have a family reunion.”
Hongjun hurried to thank her. Yang Yuhuan then pulled out a food box that she had placed to her side, saying, “The pastries that you like, I managed to bring you a few in passing as well.”
“Thank you!” This time, Hongjun was truly happy, and his smile immediately swept across his entire face.
Hongjun left the horse carriage. The weather was cold, so he had Yang Yuhuan stay inside. Li Longji and Li Jinglong came strolling back, and the horse carriage turned around. Li Jinglong’s brows were faintly furrowed, and he shot a look towards Hongjun.
After Li Jinglong had his discussion with the emperor, Hongjun sensed that he seemed to be a little dejected, so he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Li Jinglong didn’t reply, so Hongjun opened the box and said, “I’ll let you have a piece, cheer up.”
“I’m really jealous of you,” Li Jinglong said solemnly. “You’re so happy every day.”
Hongjun began to smile. When he heard of his father and mother’s past, he had felt a little sorrowful, but he had also felt joy, as if he had found a unique sense of belonging as he spoke with someone who knew about the past. When Yang Yuhuan had spoken of his father who he had long since had no memory of and brought up his mother’s name, it was as if he was forming a strange connection with humans -- he was also one of them, and this realm of red dust that included everything under the sun, with a matter-of-fact attitude, had accepted him.
That night, when Hongjun and Li Jinglong returned to the Exorcism Department, every room was lit with the warm glow of yellow lanterns. A glazed lantern had even been placed by the side of the carp yao’s pond.
Hongjun yawned. Li Jinglong asked earnestly, “Right now, what are you thinking of?”
Hongjun thought for a moment, but before he could answer, Li Jinglong said, “I want to knock on each of their doors one by one, to speak with them a little.”
Hongjun stood in the hallway, looking at the lights from behind the doors to each room as he said, “I think that looking at this scene, it’s really nice.”
Li Jinglong en-ed and nodded. “So I’ll let it go. Go to sleep early, tomorrow we’re going to the Huaqing Palace to soak in the hot springs.”
“Really?!” Hongjun cheered.
“What?” The people in the rooms heard the commotion, but Li Jinglong hurriedly turned and left. Qiu Yongsi didn’t ask more, and Hongjun returned to his room to sleep.
The night passed, and when Li Jinglong rose in the morning he saw Qiu Yongsi, Mo Rigen, A-Tai, Hongjun, and the carp yao, these four people and one fish standing outside of the main entrance to the Exorcism Department, studying the doors.
“Morning, Zhangshi,” Mo Rigen smiled.
Li Jinglong observed that door, where Qiu Yongsi was holding a brush whose tip was dipped in vermilion as he drew a sigil on the door.
“What’s this for?” Li Jinglong asked.
Hongjun replied, “Brother Yongsi got inspiration from Lady Guoguo’s sigil, and he wants to try and see if he can seal up the place where the Exorcism Department resides.”
A-Tai explained, “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be good if someone does barge in by mistake, or if thieves manage to break in.”
Li Jinglong thought, what a good idea! If they could use illusions or open up a separate dimension to separate the Exorcism Department from everywhere else, then that would prevent future situations like the emperor coming in for an inspection only for everyone to still be asleep.
“Curve it a little more this way,” Hongjun said, pointing to the sigil on the door.
“See here,” Qiu Yongsi gestured for Hongjun to look to the side as he replied, “The Incantation of Flying Stones Moving Mountains and Filling Seas.”
“Yes, yes!” Hongjun was just at the age where he was interested in everything, and as things currently stood, it seemed like the one he admired the most was Qiu Yongsi -- A-Tai had the Godly Hurricane Fan which could produce wind, fire, ice, and sand, but it was still a power confined to the five elements. Mo Rigen’s Seven Nailed Arrows could pursue an enemy of their own accord, and he could also shift into the Grey Wolf, but these abilities were still within acceptable bounds.
Only Qiu Yongsi, who not only could flatten yaoguai into a painting with a wave of his brush, but could also cause the things in paintings to leap out of the canvas, and was also a great master of incantations, had entirely exceeded what Hongjun was familiar with. With the addition of his deep knowledge of artifacts, these factors caused Hongjun to admire him greatly.
“You can add a little bit of decoration,” Hongjun added.
“You want to do it?” Qiu Yongsi smiled.
Hongjun took the brush, thought deeply for a moment, before drawing a few small decorations on the sigil, saying, “It’s good.”
After that, everyone backed up. Qiu Yongsi said, “This is the first time that the doors will open and close, so why doesn’t Zhangshi do it? In the future we can think of ways to set up a mechanism for it, but right now, what we have will do.”
Saying this, Mo Rigen taught Li Jinglong the activation chant for the array. Li Jinglong stood in the middle of the alleyway, his hand glowing with the light of the Heart Lamp.
The entire alleyway underwent a strange twisting, and with a weng the sigil that had been altered began to glow. The loose cobblestones all around began to rise up into the air and with several peng pengs, they sealed off the main gate, covering it up entirely.
“It worked!” Hongjun only felt extremely amazed.
“If you turn the sigil the other way, you can unlock it,” Qiu Yongsi reminded him.
Li Jinglong pushed one hand forward, and the stones began to give off light. With another boom, the sigil on the door rotated the other way, and the cobblestones all flew away, revealing the main gate again. The doors opened inwards, and the statue of Acala in its lofty position in the main hall stared down at the five people in the alley.
“Amazing!” Li Jinglong was extremely pleased, and afterwards the rest of them tried it out one by one. This had finally solved one of their issues, and from today onwards, the Exorcism Department would be a completely independent government building that only those who they wished to enter could set foot in. Even if it was the crown prince himself, he would still have to wait for them to open the doors.
Right then, Li Longji’s reward for them came. The matter of promotions was not brought up, and Li Jinglong still remained their zhangshi, but they were given six horses, in addition to 40 bolts of brocade, 200 liang of gold, 40 dan of grain, plus six pieces of golden-veined nanmu, to be made into waist tallies for the Exorcism Department to use.
There was also a small box, inside of which was one of the bones of the great Master Xuanzang. The carp yao hugged that relic, feeling a small bit of sadness that it couldn’t vocalize.
The horses that Li Longji had given them were good Dayuan horses, and what was even more impressive was that all six had different coat colors. The carp yao instantly grew bug-eyed at that, and it asked, “How will I ride it?”
The carp yao clambered onto the saddle, but its feet couldn’t even reach the stirrups; it could only manage to tighten its legs around the horse’s flanks, its fish head pointed up at the sky, only able to look to either side and not in front. If it were to ride the horse out like this, most of the people who witnessed this scene would probably be frightened out of their wits.
“That…” Hongjun said. “You’d be better off clinging to my back.”
“If we’re going out, then bring my horse along too ba,” the carp yao said. “If everyone’s gone, leaving it behind at home will be too lonely for it.”
Li Jinglong could only promise to do so, and he said, “Let’s go to Mt. Li to soak in the hot springs.”
Everyone cheered at that, and they steered their horses out of the back alleyway, leaving Chang’an through the Western Gate as they headed towards Mt. Li.
Hongjun had selected the white horse, and with himself in front, he left the others in the dust as he galloped across the plains. Li Jinglong, riding a red piebald, caught up to him, with Qiu Yongsi, riding a grey horse, Mo Rigen riding a black one, and A-Tai riding a light yellow one trailing behind him. At the very end was a riderless light grey horse, galloping along as swiftly as the wind.
Li JInglong said, “Your horse-riding skills aren’t as good as mine.”
“Then come chase me,” Hongjun turned his head and called. “My horse is definitely faster than yours!”
“I don’t believe it! Why don’t we see whose horse first arrives at Mt. Li?” Mo Rigen shouted as he shot past them.
“Ho!” A-Tai said. “Want to bet?”
“Alright!” Qiu Yongsi said loudly. “Let’s bet one jug of hupo wine! Whoever gets there first gets to drink it all!”
Li Jinglong said, “You guys will lose very badly! Whoever gets to Mt. Li first will be the big brother of the Exorcism Department from now on!”
“Sure --!” the rest of them all shouted.
And saying this, with a whistle, the Akhal-Teke horses sped up instantly as each of them chirruped their horses forward, racing like lightning across the plains towards Mt. Li.
Two shichen later, the victor was clear.
The first horse to arrive at Mt. Li was that riderless light grey piebald. Li Jinglong was number two, Mo Rigen number three, Qiu Yongsi number four, A-Tai number five, and Hongjun dead last.
“Am I going to become the big brother?” The carp yao’s expression was stunned; that miracle had come too quickly, taking the fish completely by surprise.
Li Jinglong said, “This can’t count, right… no one was on the horse.”
“But just now, Mo Rigen said,” Hongjun said, “‘Whose horse’ first gets to Mt. Li, he didn’t say ‘who first gets’ to Mt. Li.”
The carp yao, from its place riding behind Hongjun, said, “A gentleman’s word can’t be retracted. Quick, call me big brother.”
Li Jinglong stammered, “This… big… big…”
Calling a carp yao “big brother” was really something that Li Jinglong couldn’t do. In the future, when the Exorcism Department had to move out in unison, when he imagined a carp yao leading the Great Tang’s assigned officials and five exorcists to do battle across the land… that scene really was a mentally devastating one.
The rest of them looked at Li Jinglong, thinking, Don’t say it, don’t say it. If you don’t say it, then the rest of us don’t have to either, but as soon as you recognize a hairy-legged carp as the big brother, then the rest of us have nowhere to turn, and no way to get out of it.
“Big… big brother,” Li Jinglong said.
“I can’t hear you, speak up a little?” the carp yao said, putting its hands on its waist.
So Li Jinglong could only say, “Big brother! Big brother!”
“Hey, second brother,” the carp yao said.
In this instant, his emotions were very complex, but Zhangshi could only mourn that his life was cruel. After shouting that line, he seemed to have given up on his entire life, his face clouded with misery, as he rode on ahead on his own up the mountain.
The rest of them could only be the little brothers, and even Hongjun felt a little unable to vocalize that title. He tried it out, calling the carp yao “big brother”, before saying, “Let’s go, let’s go! Time to go soak in the hot springs!”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.