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Chapter 21: Deadly Designs
Black Iron Pagoda raised his bowl to Sickly Wuchang. "Sit down, Sickly fella! I was just testing you. How could this Fugitive guy here take big brother's place! To tell the truth, Fugitive here is a ferocious tiger; Fine Horse Village is too small a mountain for him. You can't contain him, and you would be wronging him if you could. He must make a name for himself throughout the jianghu and dominate the martial fraternity. He and I have already decided to meet up together next year in Xi'an prefecture and roam the jianghu together. What the hell is there for us in Fine Horse Village? Don't even start! Cheers."
Wenchang butted in, "There are some among you gentlemen who do not understand the principles of righteousness and have been threatened and bribed by Bald Flood Dragon to turn against us. I hope those brothers will realize their error and mend their ways and help us out to the best of their ability and go back and tell Bald Flood Dragon that Fine Horse Village is extending its hand to him in friendship and wish to have cordial relations with him and his people. If they do not accept and wish to persist, we will have to bury them. If they want to be friends, tomorrow he should send his calling card. If they wish to fight, tomorrow he should issue a written challenge to arrange a time to settle things, the location to be decided by them. A host respects his guest's wishes."
Sickly Wuchang extended his withered hand. "Brother Cai, thank you for opening a way out of this for us. Please accept my blessing and gratitude."
They clapped each other on the arm as everyone's cheers resounded like thunder. "Welcome, brother Cai."
"Thank you, brother Cai."
"Thank you, brother Cai," Spirit Fox said happily. "Three cheers!" Everyone erupted in cheers.
Wenchang promptly raised his bowl. "You gentlemen honor me, thank you. I think one bowl is enough. There will be a fierce battle tomorrow. We can't give Bald Flood Dragon any opportunities to exploit. And something just might happen tonight; we must be on our guard. Once this is all settled we won't stop 'til we're drunk. Cheers."
"Cheers!" everyone shouted.
Spirit Fox drained his bowl and turned it over to show it was empty. "Sisters, come and serve brother Cai."
There was a burst of shouts from the rear of the reception room and soon after four pretty, heavily made-up prostitutes emerged. Two of them held golden-traced folding fans and half-concealed their red lips with an embroidered handkerchief. The other two carried pipas1 and were dressed in silks and satins, their hair adorned with pearl and jade ornaments, their fragrance wafting in the air around them as they gracefully made their way to the table. They greeted Sickly Wuchang, but their coquettish eyes flitted to Cai Wenchang. They lowered their heads and smiled flirtatiously.
Sickly Wuchang beckoned to Wenchang and laughed. "Go on, pay your respects to Brother Cai and Master Fan."
The girls turned to Wenchang and said in unison, "Greetings, Master Cai."
Wenchang's face was ice-cold as he cupped a hand over his fist. Black Iron Pagoda didn't wait for them to get near him. "Get away, get away," he shouted. "Don't kill my buzz."
Spirit Fox could read the situation. He knew that most brawny men of the jianghu hated slutty women. Wenchang was a young, honest man, a born and bred local. He could tell by his face that he was no ladies' man. He cut in, "Meifeng, you all go set up to the side and sing us a few songs to liven things up."
"As you wish," one of the girls said. "We await your instructions."
The four girls sat between Sickly Wuchang and Wenchang in seats prepared by the attendants. Spirit Fox said, "Meifeng, select some more refined songs. Don't sing those coarse, boorish ones."
Meifeng was the girl who had just answered before. She assented and conferred with the other girls in low voices.
Sounds of finger guessing games in progress mingled with singing and boisterous drinking at the five tables. Some raised liquor bowls and came over to Sickly Wuchang and the two guests and offered a toast.
The clear twang of strings filled the air among the din, followed by slow, sonorous singing, drawn out and clear as a silver bell. The noisy carousing gradually died down.
Under the tiled eaves at the front of the hall two large eyes flashed. From the back of the room one had a clear view of everything, a person crouched under the eaves. A woman.
Two girls plucked strings while the other two sang, their gentle, delicate voices flowing. "Welcome, young man, within these embroidered curtains; with words of longing, limbs interlock like branches. Hair a mess, pins dangling, the comb drops past lovely brows. Charming tenderness, unspeakably lovely. A delicate jade hand strokes the youn man's lapel."
Not many there could understand it, yet their shouts of "bravo" were thunderous.
Wenchang lowered his head and fondled his liquor bowl. Great singing, he thought. But those lyrics don't befit a man of the jianghu.
Black Iron Pagoda slammed his bowl down among the applause and got up and went behind the young ladies and scooped them up in his big greasy hands and carted them off toward the back of the room. The girls screamed, but they couldn't free themselves,. They were so shocked their faces blanched, and they dropped their golden-traced fans and embroidered handkerchiefs.
Everyone was stunned to silence.
Black Iron Pagoda set them down at the back door and rolled his big eyes at them and the girls fell down from fright.
"You all f*ckin' be good and scoot along. Papa Blackie doesn't like those tunes. I'd rather hear cats screeching. Your singing done set me off. I'll stop up your little mouths with a bowl of liquor. Get out of here!" Black Iron Pagoda's gruff voice was like a thunderclap. He strode back to his seat and sat down.
Wenchang couldn't help but chuckle. "Black Iron Pagoda, don't forget you're a guest."
Black Iron Pagoda grunted his assent. "I just have a bad temper. I just can't hide it when I'm not happy."
Wenchang took a drink. "There's nothing wrong with being frank, but if you're too frank you'll turn into a maniac. Haha! No wonder you're still down on your luck even though you have a reputation among the jianghu."
"You like a friend like me?" Black Iron Pagoda said calmly.
Wenchang slammed his bowl on the table, smashing it to pieces. "If we're not genuine enough, may us end up like this bowl."
Black Iron Pagoda stared at him hard, his tone changing slightly. "I… I will call you brother."
"I'll call you big brother," Wenchang said earnestly.
Black Iron Pagoda poured three bowls. "Brother, don't forget our appointment next spring."
"Big brother, I won't leave until you've arrived."
The next day, Bald Flood Dragon didn't send a calling card, nor did he issue a written challenge to fight. The lot of them quietly left Fine Horse Village and withdrew from Red River and headed back toward the Han River.
Wenchang had officially become a renowned figure within Fine Horse Village's criminal underworld. He stayed at Shangluo Inn and was seen by decent gentlemen as a local ruffian, a hoodlum, a scoundrel. He had a share of every bit of extortion, blackmail, protection money, every fight and disturbance in Fine Horse Village, even if he wasn't present at the scene. Among the local thugs he was second only to Sickly Wuchang; he didn't get involved in small disputes or petty deals. He was responsible for dealing with the brawny outsiders passing through on business. The name Cai Wenchang became known far and wide.
It wasn't easy making a living in the underworld. Colluding with officials, assuring the gentry, placating your own men, finding sources of revenue, dealing with outside enemies… they were all knotty affairs. When he couldn't handle it, Spirit Fox was more than equal to the task. After all, he didn't possess that kind of talent.
On the third day after the banquet, Wenchang saw Black Iron Pagoda off on his way to Xi'an prefecture. He saw him all the way to Shangzhou, then they parted with reluctance and affection.
The girl in white and the other riders saw the two of them on the road. But Wenchang didn't want to provoke them and took a small footpath from Shangzhou back to the village.
In the blink of an eye winter arrived and the end of the year was almost here. Wenchang's Ultimate Breathing completed the first phase without a hitch and his strength advanced gradually. Stepping into the second phase, he began practicing more diligently.
He practiced weapons and hand-to-hand fighting with the local ruffians for half the year and accumulated a lot of experience. Too bad he didn't have any expert opponents so he didn't know just what level he was at. He still lacked the experience and training that could only come from a life and death struggle.
During that half year he appeared several times and dealt with some third-rate fellows of the jianghu, and thus his renown became more and more widespread. The name 'The Fugitive' Cai Wenchang began to gain ground among the jianghu, and the people of Fine Horse Village treated him with reverence and wariness.
His initial ambition had been realized, and Sickly Wuchang had become an insignificant big brother.
Black Iron Pagoda was right: Fine Horse Village was too small a mountain, unable to contain this massive tiger. The gods of Fate had imperceptibly destined him to a life of fugitive exile. He had to leave. He had to drift about on the outside.
Spring came. It was time for him to bid Fine Horse Village farewell.
Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox had devised a venomous plan to drive him out. Partly it was to vie for power and authority, but also it was because Wenchang's methods didn't benefit them. In the first place, Wenchang had demanded their profits were opened up and their gambling dens and unlicensed brothels were not exempt from paying protection money. Second, Wenchang strictly opposed human trafficking, selling girls into prostitution. He felt harming women and children was not befitting of a hero. But most intolerable for these two was that Wenchang's temperament was influencing the other men, gradually making them come to be dissatisfied with the two of them, and their explanations were increasingly falling short.
The seed had been planted. When an opportunity arose it must sprout and grow.
Within the criminal underworld, as long as a murder was not committed in a public place, or as long as the family of the victim could not identify the culprit, the authorities would not bother investigating into it too much. But if there was a blunder, the authorities would have to take action in order to save face and make a big fuss about it. So it was a major taboo within the criminal underworld to kill someone in a public area and not destroy the body and all evidence. The local thugs would never openly butt heads with the local authorities.
Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox had already set things up and were working at it from two angles at once.
The local tyrant of Shangzhou was surnamed Ma. His face was pockmarked, and was the fifth among his siblings, so he was called Pockmarked Tiger Daddy Ma the Fifth. Ma the Fifth's backers were the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua. The Five Uglies were brothers, surnamed Lai. The eldest was Thunderbolt Staff Lai Hua. He whirled his long staff like a violent storm, incredibly powerful and incredible. The Five Uglies normally resided at Mt. Hua, operating outside the entrance to Cloud Terrace Temple, robbing people. Their master was Priest Quanzhen Celestial Void, a Daoist priest at Cloud Terrace Temple. This priest had really attained the way. Before entering the priesthood, he was a solitary bandit around Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, known as Lone Wanderer Bai Yunshen, surname Bai, given name Yunshen. The Five Uglies secretly broke into houses and looted them. They were peas in a pod, like master like disciple. Nothing strange there.
If you wanted to lure someone into a deadly situation, two words were enough: 'fame' and 'fortune'. After winning fame and fortune, every problem was easily solved.
Previously, Pockmarked Tiger had received Sickly Wuchang's letter asking for help in dealing with Bald Flood Dragon, but the profits had not been promising, so Pockmarked Tiger had ignored it.
This time, Sickly Wuchang felt his position as boss shaky and about to crumble, and his profits little by little were slipping into the hands of his subordinates. His losses were too great; it wouldn't be long before he fell from power. At his wits' end, he once again sent a letter to Daddy Ma the Fifth. His offering this time was much more generous, which roused Ma the Fifth's interest. First, the brothers of Fine Horse Village would become nominally under Ma's command and they would venerate him as "boss". Second, Ma the Fifth could send one to three people to take charge of the situation. Third, 20% of the ill-gotten gains would go to Ma the Fifth.
Ma the Fifth's interest was piqued. He haggled a bit and finally amended the terms to allow him to send five men to take charge of things in Fine Horse Village, and 10% was added to his cut of the profits. After settling everything it was decided to seize Wenchang on the main street of Fine Horse Village on the fifteenth of the first lunar month and send him under guard to Shangzhou.
A plucked, string instrument similar to a lute. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pipa ↩