"Li Jinglong was silent for a very, very long time, and he seemed to be a little nervous."
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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The first month passed, and unknowingly, it had been over a month since they had left Dunhuang. There was a sense of unease in Hongjun’s heart, and the closer they got to the Taihang Mountains, that feeling grew stronger and stronger. Sometimes, he suddenly had the idea to turn around halfway with Li Jinglong, and sometimes, he hoped that this road had no end.
It was as if as long as he separated himself from the human realm, many things would not happen, and he would not have to worry.
They left their horses in the meadow, passing through the narrow slot canyon in the Taihang Mountains, then clambering up an ancient path laid down thousands of years ago up onto the summit. The vault of the sky was vast above them, and the only sound came from several flying birds. They had finished their rations, so Hongjun taught Li Jinglong how to catch fish from the rivers. Hongjun used his throwing knives to pin the fish in the water, and Li Jinglong would then catch them, bring them up, and light a fire to roast the fish. There were also quite a few berries and wild mushrooms in the forests that he didn’t know the name of. Back then, Hongjun had come down the mountain just like this.
“It’s that mountain there.” Hongjun pointed towards the snowy mountain in the distance.
They were almost at their destination. To Li Jinglong’s eyes, almost all the mountains looked the same. The two of them prepared three days’ worth of rations, then Hongjun took him twisting and turning through the trees, searching for the marks that he had made when he was coming down. They then climbed up the cliff using the vines.
The wind was very strong, and this was Li Jinglong’s first time climbing a mountain barehanded like this, and plus, Yaojin Palace was specifically located somewhere only flying birds could reach. He and Hongjun stood shoulder to shoulder on the cliffside. While Hongjun was used to climbing up and down, he was afraid that Li Jinglong would take a wrong step, so he held his hand tightly.
When they got to a narrow vertical cliffside, Li Jinglong wiped off a handful of sweat as he and Hongjun looked up above their heads. Hongjun then tossed out his grappling hook, which caught on a rock on the cliffside. He climbed up a stretch, stood firm, and tossed the line down to pull Li Jinglong up.
“Your family lives so high up!” Li Jinglong only thought that he lived in some ancient temple at the top of a mountain; he hadn’t expected that there wasn’t even a road.
Hongjun replied, “The view is very good at the top! Come ba!”
With that, Hongjun tossed his grappling hook up again. Like this, every time he tossed it up, the two of them climbed up a stretch. Now Li Jinglong understood; Hongjun’s skills of leaping onto rooftops and vaulting over walls had actually been trained like this.
When they neared the cloud layer, above their heads was already frozen ice that had accumulated for thousands of years, and where they stopped to rest halfway up the mountain, only a single person had set foot there before. Hongjun and Li Jinglong stood almost on top of each other to rest, the two of them standing on a two chi rectangular outcrop that overlooked a steep cliff, pausing for breath.
Hongjun tossed the grappling hook up again, but instead, the hook caused all of the chunks of ice above their heads to come collapsing down with an earthshaking thud.
“Watch out!” Li Jinglong immediately turned and hugged Hongjun. The cascade of ice plummeted downwards, and Hongjun’s heart leapt wildly as the two of them pressed together, their noses pressed together, both panting rapidly.
The ice that fell wildly just happened to miss the two of them, plummeting into the deep valley below. It wasn’t until a long while later that the noises lessened, and their breaths mingled as they stared into each other’s eyes for a while. Hongjun actually felt that both he and Li Jinglong had reactions to this. Li Jinglong’s thing seemed to be pressing domineeringly against him, and Li Jinglong, mirth in his eyes, pressed two hands against the cliffside, looking at him with mischievous intent.
“How does it feel, being hugged like this?” Li Jinglong said. He actually had the heart to poke fun at him! “Tell me, did you start to fancy me a long time ago?”
Hongjun’s entire face was bright red, and he said, “Don’t tease me!”
With only a slight move from Hongjun, Li Jinglong immediately began to shout loudly, and he almost fell off. Hongjun hurried to grab him, but in a flash, some more ice fell from above their heads, so Li Jinglong once again hugged him, the two of them both looking up. After a few more times, most of the ice had slid off, and only then did Hongjun once again toss out the grappling hook.
In the beginning when Hongjun had headed down the mountain, he had been sent by Qing Xiong down past the lone summit, but this road was one that he had often climbed before. If it was just him, going up and down was nothing. But with Li Jinglong in tow, the difficulty level clearly rose quite a bit.
The sun set in the west, and Hongjun clambered onto a cliff in the middle to rest his feet, before dangling the rope down. Li Jinglong kept sliding, and he finally made it up with great difficulty.
“It gets better from here on up,” Hongjun said.” We’ve already passed the cloud layer, and there’s no more ice up top. Let’s rest for the night ba.”
After the battle in the Mogao Caves, Li Jinglong’s right hand was still a little shaky. Despite that, he sat, shoulder to shoulder, with Hongjun on a steep cliffside. At that time, the wind began to blow, and the sea of clouds parted. The golden light of the sunset shone out from the west side of the lone peak, over the vastness of the Divine Land, the coils of the mountain range, and the plains outside those mountains that stretched endlessly.
“How beautiful,” Li Jinglong murmured. “We didn’t do all of that for nothing.”
Hongjun replied, absentmindedly, “When I was still very small, my only wish was to leave the Taihang Mountains and go to take a journey in that ‘red dust’ that Qing Xiong spoke about.”
“How do you feel now?” Li Jinglong asked, turning his head to look at Hongjun.
Hongjun’s youthful looks were so very bright and open, and his face was set in an expression of longing. Li Jinglong seemed to see that Hongjun from the very beginning, a Hongjun who was pure and clean. After leaving Chang’an, he had become low spirited for quite a time. This left Li Jinglong completely baffled, but while they sat on the high mountains, watching that sunset whose light spanned thousands of li, the past him returned once more.
“The human realm is very good,” Hongjun murmured as he turned his head and began to smile.
Li Jinglong slung his arm over Hongjun’s shoulders as the rays of the sunset washed over them.
“What is so good about it?” Li Jinglong asked in response.
Hongjun thought for a moment, before saying confusedly, “I don’t know.”
“When I was small, I wanted to learn some skills, and cultivate to become an immortal,” Li Jinglong said absentmindedly. “I wanted to go to a mountain that no mortal could reach, to take an individual with great skills as a master. Yet you wanted to come to the human realm, to come to this red dust.”
“Qing Xiong said, it’s not fun on the mountain,” Hongjun said oddly, “the human realm is fun. Even if you learned skills, wouldn’t you still have to go back to the human realm? Otherwise, why would you go cultivate into a saint? To live for a long time, only to stay on a mountain, what purpose is there in that?”
Li Jinglong hurriedly chuckled. “Of course I didn’t want to learn skills just to go show them off to mortals.”
Hongjun asked, “Then to protect the Divine Land? But I haven’t seen a human realm devastated by the ravages of yao and devils. In these years, the Divine Land has always been in a state of peaceful splendor. What made you believe in that book that Di Renjie left behind?”
A long time ago, Li Jinglong would have replied to him, but as he kept asking, Li Jinglong also began to feel a little doubtful. This desire was one that he had always felt strongly about. No matter if everyone mocked him for believing in monsters and random gods, no matter if he was like the man from Qi who was afraid of the sky falling in, that had never changed.
Now that he thought about it, why was that the case?
“It was destined in my life ba,” Li Jinglong said at last. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met you either.”
Hongjun en-ed, leaning against his shoulder. The setting sun sank below the horizon, and the stars in the sky rose. At this moment, Hongjun’s mind was filled with a preternatural calm, and he was no longer filled with worries.
When it grew light the next morning, Hongjun began to clamber up once more.
To reach the summit of the Taihang Mountains, this section was the last stretch, but also the most difficult. There were often steep cliffsides five or six zhang tall, with absolutely nowhere to get a hold on, only cracks in the stone face. Hongjun tested several times, using his grappling hook to hook onto the crack. He climbed up first, stabbing the throwing knife into the crack and using his hand to dangle from it, before pulling Li Jinglong up. He then had him hold the throwing knife, using it like a steel wedge driven into the rock face to slowly, one zhang at a time, climb upwards.
The waterfall of clouds surrounded them, rose, and flowed down. Li Jinglong held onto the knife with all of his might, saying, “Hongjun… I have one last question to ask you…”
“What?” Hongjun looked down from up high.
“You haven’t… climbed the wrong mountain, right?” Li Jinglong lowered his head to look under his feet. At this moment, he was holding onto a throwing knife wedged into the cliffside, and thousands of zhang under his feet, after the fog of clouds parted, the ground appeared, distant beyond belief.
If he was to fall down from here, his body would instantly be pulverized.
“If we climb up, there’s no way to get back down!” Li Jinglong said.
Hongjun hadn’t thought of this question, and he came back to himself, immediately saying, “It shouldn’t… be…”
When Li Jinglong heard this reply, he almost couldn’t catch a breath and nearly fell down.
With one hand holding onto the throwing knife, Hongjun tossed out the grappling hook with the other, hooking onto the tall ledge jutting out from the summit. He hung onto the grappling hook, and with a flying leap, he kept pulling the rope back to himself. After several swings, he finally climbed up, and he let out a long breath as he stood onto the tall platform. Suddenly, he jolted and almost fell down.
On the tall platform, a man stood in front of him.
A fierce wind blew by, and the man’s flame red royal robe fluttered with it. The long bands drifted like the feathers of a phoenix, and one had long since been severed. His royal robe draped loose on him, slung over his shoulders, and his face was set in a cold expression, his golden eyes studying Hongjun.
That was Chong Ming.
After meeting his gaze for a moment, Hongjun immediately forgot what he was going to say, and in the end he quietly let out a call of “Dad.”
Below him, Li Jinglong shouted, “Are you alright?! Where’d you go?”
Hongjun came back to himself and hurriedly let down the rope, pulling Li Jinglong up. Li Jinglong panted for breath, his outer robe all mussed and disordered as he leaned against Hongjun. When he straightened, as soon as he saw Chong Ming, he also clearly grew nervous.
“Un-uncle Chong Ming,” Li Jinglong hurried to cup his hands and greet him.
“You still know to come back?” Chong Ming’s words, however, were directed at Hongjun.
Hongjun only stood there silently, not saying a word. Chong Ming glanced at the two of them, before he let out a cold hmph and turned and left. Hongjun wanted to chase after him, but to one side, a youth had already come, saying quietly, “Your Highness.
“Your Highness, please come this way.”
“Dad! I have stuff to ask you!” Hongjun called out to Chong Ming, ignoring what the servant was saying.
Chong Ming stopped and said darkly, “There will be a chance for you to do so later.” He then spread his wings, turned into the phoenix and, shrouded in blazing flames, flew towards the palace in the distance.
The two of them had climbed up to a platform outside the main hall of Yaojin Palace. There was a pool on this platform, and on the banks was planted a parasol tree. Li Jinglong stowed away the grappling hook, and the youths came forth to invite the guests in to rest. Hongjun seemed to be very dejected, so Li Jinglong said, “Hongjun, talk to him properly, don’t fight with your father.”
Hongjun could only nod, letting out a sigh.
No matter what, it still felt very good to return home. He brought Li Jinglong through the main hall, heading along the outside corridor through the garden. When Li Jinglong saw that this place was planted full of spiritual grasses and heavenly plants, he asked, “These were all planted by you?”
“They were all planted before,” Hongjun said, before he thought for a moment. “I’ll take you for a stroll?”
“Let’s go back and tidy up first,” Li Jinglong smiled. “There’s no rush.”
The land that Yaojin Palace occupied was easily some tens of thousands of qing , and the servants in the palace, who were birds that had taken the form of humans, were all young men and women, almost a thousand in count. The hall was built of nephrite jade. Nephrite! Jade! Li Jinglong was already completely struck dumb. Daming Palace, Xingqing Palace, Huaqing Palace… though the palaces of the human emperors were splendid, they were a far cry from this level. The entirety of Yaojin Palace was separated into the east, west, and middle three halls, and every hall had corridors criss-crossing, with carved railings and painted buildings. The style of architecture was even earlier than Han structures, and all of the furnishings were ancient artifacts from the three prehistoric dynasties to the Sui dynasty.
The servants led Li Jinglong to the western hall. Over the doors, there was an image of a peacock feather much like the Jade Peacock Plume that Hongjun had. Even the cups for water were made of glazed glass, and there were many items made of gilded gold and soft-smoke cloth. Even the shelf used for holding books was made from red sandalwood.
“Li-zhangshi,” a youth said, entering. “The water is prepared, and here are your clothes.”
Li Jinglong picked it up and took a glance, only to see that in this short ke, Yaojin Palace had actually produced a change of robes that was exactly the same as his martial robe. The only difference was that the brocade and the materials used were even better.
“I’ll do it myself.” Even if Li Jinglong had been from a well-to-do family, he had never been subject to such extravagant luxury. After taking a bath, he changed his robes. The youths in Yaojin Palace, he figured, must all be birds, because they all went around with their upper bodies bare, only wearing a set of long pants, so that it was easy to stretch their wings. The clothes that had been made for Li Jinglong were a set of dark purple martial trousers. They had also specially prepared a set of wooden ji for him, as well as a thin, dark, short tunic for his upper body.
Speaking of which, the summit of the Taihang Mountains was not cold at all, which was also strange. It was as warm as spring or summer, and he figured it was probably because the phoenix was there.
“Li-zhangshi, this way please.” The youths came again to escort him.
Li Jinglong figured that it was probably Hongjun who had them calling him that, so he nodded and followed behind his guide, carelessly peeking into the rooms they passed with open doors. There was Hongjun’s library, there was the martial room used for practicing his throwing knives, with straw men and straw pigs and whatnot, and also a medicine storage, which had a ding, mortar and pestle, and a complete set of such necessities.
Hongjun had also just finished bathing, and his hair had been cut short, his head damp with water. The yao tribes were not like mortals; they did not have the rule that because the hair and skin of the body was a gift from one’s parents, it could not be harmed, and his short hair made him look even more lively. After returning to Yaojin Palace, he too had changed into a pair of navy blue brocade pants. He went around with his torso bare, used to it, and a youth was currently mixing some colors, drawing a dark blue pattern on his left chest like a tattoo.
His skin was fair, and his muscles were well-defined. His chest was extremely pretty, and after the pattern was drawn, it showed off even more the sex appeal of a young man.
“...when can our place also get a hot spring or the like…”
Hongjun was currently talking to the youths, but no one replied. With that, Hongjun kept talking on his own, telling them a lot about what he had seen and heard down the mountain, especially about the hot springs of Huaqing Palace, and how they were very comfortable to soak in.
The youths were afraid that if they responded, they would cause him to once again cause some trouble, so they maintained their silence.
"And the food down the mountain is super tasty," Hongjun continued. "Once in a while, we should have the chefs change things up."
Li Jinglong smiled as he watched him from within the mirror. When Hongjun saw that he had come, his face grew red.
"They usually dress like this," Hongjun replied. "But I'll go back and put on a shirt ba."
Li Jinglong hurriedly waved his hand, but he remained silent as he looked Hongjun up and down. Under that scrutiny, Hongjun grew a little nervous, but it felt more as if he was feeling uncalled for excitement.
"What are you looking at?" Hongjun was torn between laughing and crying.
“Looking at how pretty you are,” Li Jinglong said.
Though there were many youths in Yaojin Palace, and they were all the most handsome and beautiful picked from amongst a hundred, none of them could compare to Hongjun. Between his eyebrows, there was a natural aura of openness and cleanliness.
The servant drew those feather patterns from Hongjun's left shoulder to his chest, before bringing over a jade pendant for him to wear around his neck. Someone else came with the message that His Majesty was inviting the guests to partake of the meal.
The sun set behind the western mountains, and Li Jinglong went to go eat. He imagined that since Hongjun had just come home, he probably wanted to spend a little more time reuniting with Chong Ming on his own, so he told him there was no need to keep him company anymore. He didn't expect that not long after, Hongjun came rushing back.
"I don't know where Chong Ming went," Hongjun said. "I'll eat with you."
The servants brought in the food. Upon seeing it, it was a bowl of strange rice, along with soup made with fish and tofu, as well as eggs fried with tree leaves and a little bit of meat.
"Eggs." When Hongjun saw Li Jinglong's expression, he knew what he was thinking. He continued, "Not my dad's eggs."
Li Jinglong: “...”
“Do you lay eggs?” Li Jinglong suddenly asked.
"Even if I'm a yaoguai, I'm still a male one!" Hongjun was torn between laughter and tears. "Only the female ones lay eggs!"
Li Jinglong was merely teasing him, and he said, "If you could give birth to a little Hongjun like you, I imagine he'll be pretty fun to play with."
Hongjun gestured for Li Jinglong to hurry up and eat. The two of them were both hungry, but the "rice" in that bowl was not actually rice. Though it smelled light and fragrant as it entered the mouth, it felt extremely coarse as it was chewed.
"The rice is still this hard." Hongjun choked on the rice to the point that he kept stretching his neck, and Li Jinglong hurriedly ladled soup for him. He then took a bite himself and said, "Isn't this bamboo rice?!"
Hongjun didn't know what kind of valuable ingredient bamboo rice was either. Li Jinglong thought to himself, of all of the beings living under this vast sky, the only one who could use bamboo rice to steam into rice was probably the phoenix. And to make bamboo rice this disgusting was probably something that only this family could do.
"And what meat is this?"
"Rabbit," Hongjun replied. "Caught down the mountain."
Li Jinglong now understood why Hongjun acted like a hungry ghost when he was down the mountain, and how he kept eating like he could never be full. The reason was because all of the dishes in Yaojin Palace were extremely mild in taste, and basically without oil or salt. Even if it was stir-fried rabbit meat, it only used the natural fat of the rabbit to produce oil, nor was there any sauce with it. They had basically just used a large fire to speedily cook it.
"Rabbits are so cute," Hongjun said. "How come it can be made into such a disgusting dish? This is really a violent mistreatment of heavenly beings."
Li Jinglong: “.....”
The serving youths standing to the side kept listening to Hongjun complain. Hongjun ate some and then stopped, asking, "Have you guys eaten?"
Finally there was a response to this question, and everyone replied that they had. Hongjun then had them all go outside, telling them there was no need to follow, and Li Jinglong didn't need to be escorted either. Only with that did the birds all spread their wings and disperse.
"Zhao Zilong, however, hasn't come back," Li Jinglong said.
Hongjun replied, "That's perfect, otherwise it'll get scolded." And saying this, he went outside to dig through chests and upend shelves in searching for tea. He dug out half a bag of bamboo green tea, and he used boiling water to steep some in the glass cups, handing Li Jinglong one. The two of them sat in the corridor, watching the moon. Tonight, the moon was coincidentally full, and above the Taihang Mountains it was both big and bright. With the wind that blew over them, it was like a fairy realm on a summer night.
"This place is so beautiful," Li Jinglong said.
"Time also passes very fast," Hongjun replied quietly. Before he had returned home, he hadn't wanted to, but now that he was home, he couldn't bear to leave.
"When you're at home, how do you usually pass the time?" Li Jinglong asked. "That magic of yours, did Chong Ming teach you it?"
"Reading books, causing trouble," Hongjun said. "Chong Ming likes to sleep in the main hall. When Qing Xiong comes, he usually plays with me for a few days."
"With so many birds, none of them are your friends?" Li Jinglong asked.
"They aren't very good at speaking," Hongjun said. "It's not that they don't understand how, it's… they've only cultivated for some tens of years, and their spiritual consciousness has not yet been awakened. They depend on my dad's spiritual power to take human form. Everyone can only help in simple ways and do a few things; they're not as intelligent as foxes. Whatever you teach them to say, they'll say. What we usually see are all the great yaoguai. The ghost king was originally a human, so he did not have to cultivate a spirit, and the Plague God and Xuannü have both cultivated for two or three hundred years, and their resentment hasn't even retreated yet."
“Zhao Zilong didn’t chat with you?” Li Jinglong asked again.
"It was afraid of being scolded for egging me on to cause trouble," Hongjun replied, amused. "My dad said that if it kept teaching me bad things, he would turn it into roasted fish."
Li Jinglong recalled these halls gilded with gold and jade that he had just walked through, and he pictured the shadow of little Hongjun running between the rooms.
Hongjun put down the glass cup in his hands, and the clear, jade green tea reflected the full moon in the sky. A light breeze blew over, and the wind chimes hanging from the eaves tinkled.
Hongjun said, "Thank you for coming home with me, Zhangshi."
He stood up, and without saying another word he passed through the corridor under the moonlight. The light shone over his half-naked body, and Li Jinglong didn't turn his head as he suddenly said, "Hongjun."
At the end of the hallway, Hongjun looked towards Li Jinglong sitting in the corridor as he had before, his back to him.
Li Jinglong was silent for a very, very long time. He seemed to be a little nervous, and his long, slender fingers toyed with the glass cup, a small moon reflected in it.
"Will you come back to Chang’an with me?" Li Jinglong asked, smiling with a little bit of hurt. "I keep feeling that after you've come back this time, you won't leave ever again."
“I will,” Hongjun replied without even thinking about it.
But just as Li Jinglong was about to lift his head, Hongjun vanished into the end of the hallway.
He walked past the grove of parasol trees, past that wall that he often had to face during his punishments, and then he couldn’t resist coming to a stop. His heart thumped as if it was bursting out of his chest, and he was a little at a loss all of a sudden.
He stood there dumbly, looking at the wall, not even knowing why he would let those words pass his lips.
“Your Highness,” a youth said. “His Majesty has requested your presence.”
Hongjun hurried to turn, and with rapid steps he ran towards the main hall.
After he had gotten into trouble and the main hall had been burnt, it had already been completely restored, but it was not wholly the same as how it had been before. A series of stone pillars held up the front of the hall, and behind it was the light of a bright moon. The thrones up high were as empty as they had been before, and on the platform close to the mountain range, there was a pool of water. A parasol tree had been planted on the banks, and under the parasol tree sat a person; that was Chong Ming.
Hongjun slowed in his steps, coming to a stop behind the parasol tree.
When he was small, Chong Ming had often sat just like this by the side of the pool, his back against the parasol tree, and Hongjun had sprawled out on his bare chest to sleep. As soon as he slept, a whole night would pass.
He hadn’t changed at all, as if time had nothing to do with him.
“Whatever you want to ask, ask ba,” Chong Ming intoned.
Hongjun stood behind Chong Ming, saying quietly, “My parents’ cause of death, I’ve investigated clearly.”
Chong Ming replied, “Very good, you have not fallen short of my expectations.”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.