Chapter 12: A Warning
At dark, as soon as he finished supper, Wenchang combed his hair and washed up. Second Uncle Di sent someone to tell him that the boss wanted to see him at his home. Wenchang wore a plain teal robe and a pair of baggy knickerbockers called “lantern pants” and cloth slippers. Inside his wide left sleeve he wore a leather bracer on his arm that held his dagger. On his right forearm he wore another leather bracer that held two rows of concealed weapons. Knives were sheathed on the upper row, darts on the lower, all four inches long. Thousand-Hand Scholar used all kinds of concealed weapons and was unrivaled among the martial fraternity, and though he seemed nondescript, he always carried at least three kinds of weapons. But Wenchang didn’t want to use a bunch of different kinds. He took out the weeds and left the flowers, so he only used throwing knives and darts, and he didn’t use any spring-loaded contraptions. Everything was thrown by hand, preferring to rely on his skill rather than waiting for an opportunity for a sneak attack. That’s how confident he was.
His throwing knives were not like that willow leaf blade. They more resembled a weaving shuttle. Both ends could be used, and it could spin and injure people like the willow leaf blade. When he threw it straight it was like a thread of silver light. When he spun it it was like a four-inch diameter ball of light. By the force of the throw he could control its flight path and orientation. His throws were nimble and true.
His darts were likewise devastating. The tip and the shaft were one piece, the fletching made from very fine silver feathers. The tip had three edges with three tiny barbs at each end. This kind of weapon was thrown from between two fingers and was very small and sharp. Once it penetrated the skin it was not easy to pull out.
He knew that getting involved in someone else’s business in broad daylight, provoking a local as well as a doughty warrior from outside, might be inviting calamity on himself if he wasn’t on guard. He couldn’t let himself get taken advantage of, so he was bringing these things so that he would be prepared to defend himself at a moment’s notice.
He swaggered down the street. There was no proper night market in Fine Horse Village, no street lanterns. The main street was deserted. Farther down was the residential district, where the local rich men and outsider bigwigs who had settled here after retirement erected their mansions, dotted with towers and courtyard after courtyard. Close to the southeast town entrance down a small alley that broke off to the left were several lanterns glowing with a hazy yellow light. Below the nearest lantern was the side entrance of the eastern courtyard of the Zhang residence.
The Zhang mansion was extremely lavish, with five rows of housing, plus courtyards to the east and west, and a flower garden in the back. The main rooms were spacious. There was also a courtyard before the main hall adorned with plum, apricot, and pear trees, but no peach trees. A footpath divided the flower garden down the middle. Rare flowers and unusual grasses gave off their delicate fragrance. In front of the courtyard was a very tall gateway arch, and a pair of massive stone lions on either side of the steps outside the gateway.
The master was normally not at home; he spent most of his time in his native home at Shadow Rock. He was the village head and also the precinct head. He had to handle village affairs. The main entrance was usually shut tight whent the master wasn’t there; guests then would come in through a side entrance. The shopkeeper and attendants all entered through the side entrance of the eastern courtyard where the master of the house received them. This indicated they were his trusted followers. Guests were not permitted to cross the courtyard into the main hall, as that was reserved for the master’s daily activities. He never received guests in the main hall unless they were close relatives or good friends.
Wenchang had been there twice before: once when he first came to Fine Horse Village, the second time when he formally became a mastersmith at the smithy. The head steward had brought him there both times, each time through the east side entrance.
He climbed the steps and had just extended his hand to grab the knocker when the little door creaked open and a servant said softly, “Are you Master Cai?”
“My humble self is Cai Wenchang.”
“Please come in. The young master has been waiting for some time.”
“The boss is not at home?” Wenchang asked.
“The master is at the village. The young master and the young lady arrived the day before yesterday.”
The young master was Village Head Zhang Liangzuo’s son, Zhang Ziyu. The young lady was Ziyu’s younger sister, Miss Tingting. Wenchang had never met either of them before.
Wenchang followed the servant toward the east reception parlor which was ablaze with lights. Three servants and two maids shuttled back and forth in attendance. Zhang Ziyu sat in a large round-backed chair in the reception room, looking unhappy.
Zhang Ziyu, at twenty, was three years Wenchang’s senior and had pretty, gentle distinguishing features, but his delicate skin and fair complexion made him look like a woman, and he was not more than seven spans tall. He was a far cry from Wenchang, about a foot shorter.
“Master Cai is here,” the servant announced from outside the hall.
“Invite him in.”
Wenchang stepped into the hall and bent forward. “This humble one is Cai Wenchang. Greetings, young master.”
Normally, he ought to kowtow, but he was not accustomed to that. Aside from when his elder uncle had forced him to kneel, he had never kowtowed to anyone, not even to Thousand-Hand Scholar or Valiant Tiger, and he had never bowed to anyone.
Ziyu’s delicate face revealed his displeasure. He raised his hand. “Master Cai, please have a seat.”
“Thank you, young master.” He sat in the seat of honor to the right.
“Master Cai, I heard there was some trouble earlier today?”
“There was. One of Sickly Wuchang’s men…”
“I know. Master Cai, you should not have shown such reckless bravery in front of those thugs. How can a businessman get involved with the affairs of those kinds of people?”
“My response, young master, is that each business has its own rules, every industry has its proprietor. If I had allowed them to make trouble in the shop, wouldn’t there be even worse trouble later?”
“There’s enough of it now as it is. You ought to have made them settle it outside. Now that you got involved in this messy dispute our shop will not have a day of peace in the days to come. You…”
Wenchang was naturally proud and unyielding. He could tell by the young master’s tone and unpleasant face that he was unhappy about today’s events, but how could he put up with that? He interjected, “Young master, my humble self was safeguarding the shop’s honor and appearance, so I risked myself and came forward and preserved the shop’s reputation. If the young master believes my humble self has acted wrongly, then as soon as the order I’m working on is finished in five days, my humble self will pack up and be on my way at once…”
“Master Cai, how can you…”
“Please don’t worry, young master. It was my humble self who incurred this trouble, and I would never allow the young master’s shop to be given any disturbance. Tomorrow night Sickly Wuchang has arranged a meeting with my humble self. I will take full responsibility. Don’t look down on those thugs. They too have their own rules. Every injustice has its perpetrator, every debt has its debtor. My humble self will do all I can to bear it. They certainly will not come to Zhang Ironware to make trouble. I will take my humble leave. Forgive my humble self if I don’t come here personally to bid farewell five days from now. Please send my best regards to the master.”
He cupped his hand over his fist in salutation and walked out. Zhang Ziyu stood up quickly. “Master Cai, please wait, don’t do anything rash. Please…”
He was unable to retrieve Wenchang, who had already walked rapidly out of the main hall. As soon as he exited the hall himself there was no longer any sign of Wenchang. He stood at the entrance, fuming and muttering to himself, “That guy has a bad temper. No wonder he was driven out by the ancestral temple elders…”
Just then a fragrant breeze assailed him from behind. A pretty girl appeared in the hall. She was beautiful. The heavens had taken great pains to give her a sculpted physique and face, so perfect, so graceful, with big diamond-like eyes, a fine jade nose, cherry lips, and a pale face with peachy cheeks radiating a youthful red luster. Her black hair, shiny enough to see yourself in, was combed up in three tufts, each one adorned with a coil of pearl flowers, and a pair of ruby earrings hung from her earlobes. She wore a dark green short gown with a skirt. Her narrow sleeves poked out of a silver-chained see-through sleeveless jacket that was all the rage at the time. Her long skirt swayed lightly, showing peeks of her light green upturned shoes. Heavens! How could those little shoes have such a pointy thing on the upturned tips? They were deadly half-inch long lotus petals. Anyone who ran into them would lose his life. No need to ask, this flower-like girl was a rose with thorns. Or perhaps a poisonous poppy flower.
She looked to be about fifteen or sixteen, the dreamy prime of a girl’s life. A maidservant stood on either side of her in attendance as she walked gracefully into the hall.
The male servants dropped their heads and bent at the waist and hurriedly exited the hall, feeling very awkward. The girl had appeared too suddenly, not giving them time to leave. From this it was evident that the girl didn’t quibble over etiquette or protocol.
She had clearly heard what Ziyu was mumbling to himself. “Big brother, you ought to know he is a person who was brought up under much maltreatment and bullying, so he’s stubborn and conceited. It’s his only means of resisting. He doesn’t have a normal mind. How could he stand your rebuke?”
Ziyu paced around the hall, agitated. “Little sister, how can you speak up for that laborer?”
“Big brother, do you look down on laborers?”
“That’s not what I meant…”
“Oh! Should have taken him down a peg, right?”
“Didn’t you see how cold and arrogant he was when he came in here?”
“Didn’t you hear Second Uncle Di say that he was like that when he came here over two years ago?”
“So if he’s unhappy others have to be unhappy too?”
“He wasn’t trying to make anyone else unhappy.”
Brother and sister were coming to a head, almost ready to quarrel. But the miss was a girl after all, gentle by nature, so she backed off and smiled. “Don’t talk about him. Zhang Ironware won’t close down with one less mastersmith. Big brother, is there any news about the Bald Flood Dragon business?”
Ziyu shook his head and said helplessly, “About closing down, it looks like we will have to shut down all three businesses in Fine Horse Village unless we can swallow our anger, are willing to suffer losses, and withstand the pressure.”
“Bald Flood Dragon had a falling out with Riverkeeling Bullhead Shark Tan Ying, and clashed with Four Seas Dragon of Princess Island, so he didn’t have a strong foothold and had to forfeit all business dealings south of Xiangyang prefecture. The ships upriver didn’t allow him to collect his usual fare from south of Yunyang prefecture; and the profits downriver past Xiangyang were turned over to Bullhead Shark. Flood Dragon’s profits all come from south of Yunyang. The knife is basically at his throat, so he has no choice but to expand upriver and open a dock and look for other avenues to make money.”
Zhang Ziyu went on and on about matters no pampered son of an influential family ought to know about or talk about. He finished off the cup of tea on the low table and continued. “Bald Flood Dragon has two resources: one is Tangbai River, the other our Red River. With Xiangyang prefecture cut off, Tangbai River is done for. Flood Dragon’s lifeline now rests solely on Red River. Fine Horse Village is Red River’s largest source of revenue. How could he not go for it? Plus, Shangzhou is upriver, and Shangzhou is controlled by Pockmarked Tiger Daddy Ma the Fifth, who’s quite powerful there. He even has the backing of the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua. His position is as firm as Mt. Tai. He could swallow this chunk of fatty meat in one gulp, so he will steadily make his designs on it as well. Fine Horse Village has only Sickly Wuchang to challenge them. Though a group of mob bosses bluff and bluster, how can they prevent Flood Dragon from striking with all he’s got? All land and water transport in the town was in one place, so gobbling them up all at once is more than justified. Flood Dragon is determined to have it, that’s why he’s come out personally. A group of masterhands have already been distributed all over, and he himself arrived here in secret three days ago. If he prevails and drives out Sickly Wuchang he’ll have to first establish some territory here. If we can’t hold out and are unwilling to suffer some financial losses, then how can we not close down? Draw sabres and fight it out? No! Dad has sworn not to take up arms again, and would never tussle with those jianghu thugs. He really detests the jianghu way of life.”
The girl sighed faintly and smiled bitterly. “It looks like we have no choice but to close up shop.”
“That’s why dad called me here, to conclude things as soon as possible if the situation goes south. Ah! I really never thought our shop would be the fuse that sets off the explosion, all because of that ruckus at the smithy. So now you know why I rebuked Master Cai.”
The girl’s expression was urgent. “Perhaps Master Cai would be able to support Sickly Wuchang!”
“No way. Have you forgotten? The youngsters from Cai Family Village who came here to study learned at best a few basic Shaolin moves, enough to run a mutt off with, but they couldn’t fight people. And Master Cai never even studied there, so what ability would he have to help Sickly Wuchang’s situation?”
Didn’t Second Uncle Di say that he knocked away a sabre and an iron ruler with a pair of blacksmith tongs?”
“Stupid sister, how can a person who works with metal not be strong? Getting lucky and taking someone by surprise is nothing unusual. But real fighting is not the same at all! So he’s strong as an ox? Well, how many brave men of the jianghu are afraid of an ox?”
As he was speaking, a throwing knife with a red card attached zipped in sharply from over a corner of the courtyard wall and entered the hall toward the square table in the center of the room.
The flash of the knife had only just appeared at the entrance when the girl pushed aside her two maidservants and rushed out.
“Don’t do anything rash,” Ziyu said in a low voice.
The knife sank into the table with a thud. A red card was attached to the handle, swaying slightly. Ziyu grabbed the card and read it aloud. “Every business owner take note: no one is allowed to aid or abet that son of a bitch Sickly Wuchang Guo. Otherwise disaster will be heading your way. Anonymous.”
“They’ve begun,” the girl interjected calmly.
That night every notable personage in Fine Horse Village received an identical throwing knife with an identical red card with the identical words written on it, putting the whole town in a constant state of anxiety.
With Fine Horse Village tottering, the village militia began patrols.