Chapter 48: Entering the City
Wenchang didn’t run to the main avenue because he was certain Thousand-Faced Abbess would not chase him. He turned down another alley and set the beggars down on some steps in front of a building and took out a needle box from his bag. He took a three-sided needle and pierced it into the Great Hammer acupoint at the first vertebra on Odd Beggar’s back. He pinched it between his fingers as blood oozed out.
He did the same to Mad Beggar, then put away his needles. The beggars slowly regained consciousness. Odd Beggar struggled to sit up. He was exhausted. “Fiendish nun, you scheme to no avail… Ah! You…”
Wenchang helped him up. “Brother Feng, we have to get out of here quick. I lost Thousand-Faced Abbess, but she might still be after us. We have to leave at once.”
“I don’t have a way into the city; security is tight, probably because of the incident at Chang’an Tavern. So I came back to find you gentlemen so you could help me think of a way to get in. But the nun was giving you trouble, so I had to lead her away to save you two.”
He turned suddenly and saw an old nun come around the corner. He recognized her clothes. “There she is. Let’s go.”
The beggars turned to look. There really was an old nun there, but it wasn’t a young one like before, but they were already badly shaken; the sight of the nun scared them half to death. Thousand-Faced Abbess’ appearance-changing skill was renowned. She could change her face and figure in an extremely short amount of time, to the point of looking like a different person entirely. But she mostly stuck to nun looks; she rarely dressed up as some other male or female form. So whether it was really her or not, once the beggars saw an old nun appear they were terrified. They didn’t care about the pain they were in, they just wanted to get away from here.”
Wenchang was startled as well. Why would he stick around? He sped toward the main avenue.
The beggars split up and disappeared into the crowd of people, abandoning Wenchang.
When he couldn’t find the beggars, Wenchang went toward Chang’an Tavern. He had to get into the city. A thought of the carriages and sedan chairs in front of the tavern gave him an idea, so he headed over there.
He pulled the earflaps on his hat down, exposing only his eyes and nose. He had already changed clothes so he was not worried about anyone recognizing him. Who would be able to tell he was Cai Wenchang, who had just been at the tavern not long before?
There was a stream of people in front of Eight Immortals Temple, but most were heading back home. Carriages and sedan chairs were called over by servants and lined up in front of the temple to receive the ladies emerging from the temple.
Wenchang turned his attention to the carriages. They were decorated on the front and sides with patterns and names, marks and symbols of rich and powerful families. Those belonging to officials were instantly recognizable.
Three light carriages rumbled into position, one after another. A middle-aged servant stood to the left of each. They pulled the carriage door open and set down a step stool.
They were light, two-horse carriages, carved with white lion decorations. The dignified curtains were embroidered teal ribbon and the light blue carriage body was eye-catching. One glance and one knew they were carriages for officials of the fourth or fifth rank. And also Wenchang’s carriage. In those days, military officers rarely rode in carriages, and they were not permitted to sit in sedan chairs. They were required to ride on horseback so that their horsemanship would not get rusty.
Wenchang got an idea. He turned and headed toward the Gate of Everlasting Joy. He picked up a tree branch from the ground and used one of his throwing knives to whittle it into two wooden needles.
Once he was ten or so feet from the city wall he turned and slowly walked back. Everyone entering and exiting through the city gates were officers on patrol.
The three horse carriages rumbled over.
Wenchang walked back and waited until the carriages had passed him, then raised his right hand and flicked his wrist, sending a wooden needle into one of the horses’ forerib.
The horse whinnied and leapt up.
The driver was startled and cracked his whip twice and pulled hard on the reins and engaged the brake. But the horse was in pain, the needle having penetrated the muscle, so how could the sound of the whip control it? It went crazy, bucking up and down and startling the other horse. The carriage pitched and shook wildly, creating a ruckus amidst the crowd.
The women inside screeched.
Wenchang stole in just as the carriage was about to turn over and caught the horse’s halter and deftly pulled the needle out. He used his superhuman strength and pulled on the halter and petted the horse’s head until it gradually calmed down. He looked up at the pale-faced driver. “Brother, this horse has a bad temper, difficult to manage.”
“Dammit!” the driver yeled. “This awful beast liked to kill me.”
Wenchang held the horse by the halter. “No worries, I’ve got it. Let’s just get into the city; be sure not to startle the ladies inside. Come on!”
The driver heaved a deep sigh and smiled wryly. “Dammit, this beast has never give me any trouble before, but…”
“Don’t grumble, brother. Let’s go.”
The driver let off the brake. “Thank you, brother. I owe you one.”
Wenchang pulled on the halter and walked forward and the carriage slowly approached the city gates. The dozen or so soldiers at the gates saw the approaching carriages and called out to the people going in and out of the gates, “Vice Commissioner of the Right Zhang’s carriage is approaching. Idlers clear out and make way.”
The crowd parted and the soldiers also lined up on either side to let the three carriages enter the city along the east main avenue.
Wenchang waited until he was twenty or thirty feet away from the gates before he let go of the halter. “Careful, brother, this horse is still unstable; I fear it might act up again. If you ask me, it’d be safest if you got down and led it the rest of the way.”
He walked off, not waiting for the driver to respond.
If you ask residents of Xi’an what they call the place they will say “the city”. If you ask them again they will state clearly, “Chang’an”. They won’t call it Xi’an. They’re not used to that. Chang’an was truly a flourishing city. The east main avenue was a commercial district, a broad, straight street crawling with pedestrians and horse carriages running back and forth down the middle. You could say it was the number one major city in the western region.
Wenchang strode toward the center of the city, heading straight for the drum tower. It was nearly noon, almost time for his appointment.
The grand drum tower soared among the center of the city. Some government watchmen lived inside. Idlers were not permitted to hang around the area.
Wenchang left a secret mark on the southern steps, then headed to the right down the southern main avenue. In previous dynasties the drum tower had been located within the imperial city, but after the city shrank it became the center of the downtown area. The north main avenue was not far off; one could see gates of the newly-constructed prince’s palace, guarded by colorfully-attired and armored imperial guards. It was a spectacular sight, and anyone looking to make trouble here would be out of luck.
There was no place to stop and rest here. The north main avenue housed the mansions of government officials and powerful families; the other three main avenues were all commercial districts. So he couldn’t sit against a door somewhere and rest? He couldn’t find a place, so he kept on, heading west.
The first house on the right-hand corner of the west main avenue was a huge mansion, adjoined by a stone lion archway with a building along the left side of the north main avenue. It was a tall, towering mansion, with a tall flight of steps and two drum-shaped stone blocks patterned with cloud designs on either side. There were three main doors, and the screen wall within the main gates was carved with the words: Lucky Star Shining High. The side door partially concealed a middle-aged gatekeeper walking leisurely on the steps.
This must be Bloodsucker Feng’s residence, Wenchang thought.
The second house was a gigantic mansion with a front courtyard about an acre square, with hitching posts, and a carriage parking lot, very imposing. Outside the courtyard by the street on one side was a large decorated archway over a wide door, and banners stuck on either side. They were green with red characters which read: Capital-Lanzhou, Hu-Guang-Datong.
The other read: Divine Spear’s Soaring Rainbow Reaches Everywhere.
The placard on the archway was painted in crimson, and read: Northwest Escort Agency. Below that in smaller characters was: Chang’an Headquarters.
Wenchang hmphed. He said to himself, “This escort chief is arrogant; I’ll get even with him later for what happened before. You think Cai Wenchang is scared of you?” His gaze shifted to the residence to the left of Bloodsucker Feng’s mansion along the north main avenue. He thought, That’s the out-of-luck former Vice Commissioner of the Left Shi Ruokui’s house. Still pretty impressive even though he’s fallen from grace. Hmm! Attacking Bloodsucker from there would be perfect!
He headed toward the Northwest Escort Agency, either consciously or unconsciously, and scoped its surroundings and paid careful attention to the people coming in and out of the place, as well as Feng’s residence.
Eight horses galloped out of the prince’s palace and stopped at the Shi residence. Eight robust officials armed from head to foot valiantly entered the Shi family gates.
Wenchang didn’t pay any attention to the Shi family’s business. He strolled from the Feng mansion to the Northwest Escort Agency archway. Three agency assistants standing there happened to glance at Wenchang and their eyes met.
Wenchang had a small bundle under his arm as he walked with his hands clasped behind his back as casually as he could, eyeing the ridgepoles of the large building. His clothes weren’t shabby, nothing suspicious about them, except he ought not to have had the earflaps of his hat pulled down, revealing only his eyes and nose. That was a bit too obvious. It wasn’t windy, so why did he need the earflaps down?
An old nun stood inside a shop on the other side of the street, begging for alms from the shopkeeper.
Hoofs pounded like thunder as five horses charged from the east main avenue. The riders wore winter fur hoods and jackets and azure cloaks. They wore swords at their waists. The riders called the horses to stop short and continue on slowly. Two agency assistants appeared under the archway to welcome the riders, who dismounted and allowed the assistants to take the horses.
Wenchang was standing to the side of the archway, thinking, Those assistants all look savage and arrogant. They don’t seem like good people at all.
He continued on and was just about to go through the main gates of Northwest Escort Agency when he stopped suddenly as a big hand came down on his right shoulder. The hand was not pressing too hard or too lightly, but the fingers were pinching his shoulder well acupoint. If he made a sudden move that hand would increase his grip for sure.
He concentrated his qi to protect himself as he turned to look. It was one of the agency assistants, who sneered at him and said, “What are you doing, little brother?”
“I’m minding my own business, brother,” Wenchang said coldly. “Unhand me.”
“You casing the place? Could you be more obvious?” The assistant increased his grip.
Wenchang was mad. This guy thought he was a petty thief scoping the place out. What a jerk. He hmphed. “Brother, you ought to be more obvious. Let go!”
The assistant yelled, “Heh! You giving your uncle a lecture?”