Chapter 11: Invitations
Most of the twenty mastersmiths were envious of Wenchang's talent and were incompatible with him, even talking about him behind his back. The only one who was friendly with him was Third Yu, Yu Zong, who was from Xi'an prefecture.
Not long after noon a burly fellow entered the shop. The shopkeeper, Second Uncle Di, came out from behind the counter all smiles. He nodded. "It's hot out today, isn't it, Sir? Please, have a seat, have a seat."
There was a long bench next to the counter and two attendants offered tea. The man wore a neat, button-down jacket of azure cloth, and an azure turban; a sheathed sabre hung from his waist, and a cinched "hundred treasures"1 travel bag. His big eyes gleamed murderously. He didn't sit but put a foot up on the bench and slapped his palm down on the counter and boomed, "Shopkeep, tell Master Cai to come out here."
Second Uncle Di flinched. "Sir, you mean…"
"I need some concealed weapons made," the man interjected.
Second Uncle Di relaxed and smiled. "Oh! Just one minute, sir."
One of the attendants ran into the backroom and not long after Wenchang came out leisurely, his shiny black hair piled up carelessly on top of his head. His shirt was open, revealing his mound-like chest. A black apron was tied around his waist, and his chest and hands were covered in soot. He was like a giant standing there by the counter. He rarely took it upon himself to greet others, his face wooden. People said he was cold and arrogant, and he was.
The man sized him up and rolled his big eyes. "You're Master Cai?"
"I'm Cai Wenchang. What do you need, sir?"
"You can make excellent concealed weapons?"
"I've made a few."
The man rummaged through his travel bag and took out a small, finely crafted willow leaf blade. He pinged it on the counter. "Look at that. Can you make that?"
Wenchang picked it up and looked at it briefly. The blade was six inches long and pointed at both ends. Its center of gravity was slightly forward and it was edged on both sides, thin and slightly curved, but indistinctly. He put the blade down. "We can make it, but it will take some time."
"You can? Do you know what this weapon is called?"
"It's called a whirlwind willow leaf blade. It can fly in an arc, and can still spin and hurt someone even if one end of the blade is damaged."
The man looked surprised. "Eh! You really do know!"
Wenchang's face twitched. "This kind of blade is easy to throw. You don't flick it with your fingers, but keep it pressed to the palm. But if you're not skilled enough you might cut your index and ring fingers when you throw it. Sir, this blade has not been ground properly. Its center of gravity is a bit too far forward which means its spin won't be stable, which might affect its accuracy."
The man dropped his swagger and took his foot off the bench. "Brilliant, brilliant. Put the center of gravity back a bit for me. No wonder I can never hit anything. How much will it cost for one?"
"Sir, are you paying with notes or with silver?"
In those days a one-tael silver banknote was only worth a single copper. They had been devalued a thousandfold. The government prohibited the use of gold or silver in the marketplace, and if you were caught using it you might be beheaded, or at best banished to the border regions for penal servitude. That's how it was on paper anyway, but in reality gold was flashed in the markets constantly; no one took the prohibitions seriously, and so silver notes became worthless scraps of paper.
"Silver notes," the man said deftly.
"Each one is 1,500 strings."
The man's eyes bulged. "What?" he bellowed. "One blade costs 1,500 taels of silver?"
Wenchang was unmoved. "Sir, you said silver notes," he said coldly. "If you're paying with silver then each one is one tael, two coppers."
"Honest. I'm sorry, sir, but this small shop can't make this kind of concealed weapon." Wenchang turned to leave.
The man just smiled. "An expert like you, you must be joking. Brother, how long will it take you to make thirty?"
"How about five? I'll add three taels, eight coppers for each one. To be honest, your price is cheap. This one was made in Nanyang prefecture. Each one cost five taels and each one took a day to make. If you can make thirty in five days I'll pay you five taels for each."
Wenchang turned to the shopkeeper. "Second Uncle, settle the transaction with our guest. Have him come back in three days to test them." He walked off, taking large strides.
The man took out thirty taels of gold as a down payment. This was customary for forging fine products. You first had to put down two-thirds of the cost. Thirty taels of gold converted to silver was 120 taels.
The man had just stepped out of the shop when he ran head on into three bare-chested men. The street was not very wide, enough for three large carts side-by-side, but running into someone under the eaves, it was impossible to avoid them. The bare-chested man on the far left said, "Second, that's the guy."
The man knew he couldn't escape so he just stood there, arms akimbo, and stared. "What? So he called his henchmen? Hold on now, we're not fourth-rate thugs, there's no need to gang up. I'll take you on one at a time."
The one in the center snorted and drew an iron ruler2 from his belt. "Fella, you're really going to challenge the mighty. Coming to Fine Horse Village and using fake dice, you're asking for some f*cking trouble…"
The man drew his sabre and sneered. "Ha! You gonna use that thing? Slandering son of a bitch. The nerve to say I used fake dice. Open your goddamn eyes. Do I, Pit Viper Sang Ba, look like the kind of fourth-rate scum who'd use fake dice?"
Second Uncle Di's face fell. "Sirs, please take it outside…"
Ting! Ting ting ting! Weapons clanged in the doorway, a sabre and an iron ruler.
As they fought at the entrance the mastersmiths came out from the backroom. The five shop attendants were no slouches either, each grabbing an iron staff and coming forward.
When the head steward Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong was still here no one dared act up inside the shops, but not two months after he left, here was someone causing trouble. Incredible.
Wenchang's large frame appeared in the midst of the chaos, holding a pair of tongs. "Get out! What is all this?"
Sabre and ruler clashed more violently; they were already through the shop entrance.
Wenchang snorted and suddenly cut in between the flashing sabre and ruler and opened his tongs. "Stop!" he boomed.
With two crisp clangs the sabre sank downward as the iron ruler flew out, narrowly missing the crowd of onlookers.
The man's sabre had been pushed down by the tongs. He was about to raise it when a straight-seamed oxhide boot3 came down on the blade, jarring the crook of his thumb. The blade came out of his hand, held fast by the boot.
Wenchang held the sabre down with his foot and flicked his tongs. "Sirs, Zhang Ironware is full of metal implements, all capable of hurting someone. Fighting is absolutely not permitted on the premises. You sirs must know this rule. What excuse do you have?"
His move was not only blindingly fast, it was even more direct and efficient. As soon as he showed up, the sabre and ruler were shot down. In fact, both their lives were in his hands. If he struck, neither of them would come away unscathed. The onlookers were stupefied. Heavens! Master Cai was incredible! A man of substance does not flaunt his talent. But the move he revealed today was spectacular.
Someone in the crowd exclaimed, "Wah! Master Cai, that was amazing!"
The bare-chested man stared at Wenchang, unbelieving. The crook of his thumb was bleeding. He gritted his teeth. "Master Cai, you ought to know about not favoring outsiders. Which side are you on?"
"One of you is a fellow townsman, the other a customer. I'm not on anyone's side."
The ruffians of Fine Horse Village never dared cause trouble when Head Steward Zhang Hong was there, but once he left they acted with impunity. That's why they dared to fight in the entrance. Some of these jianghu fellows, even though they might be called fugitives, they still didn't want a murder case on their hands if they could help it. There was an unwritten rule that you did not fight in a smithy where weapons were made. Everything in the shop was a heavy implement, and the furnaces blazed brightly. If there was a ruckus there would certainly be casualties. Might even start a fire. Using an iron implement or hot coals or fire from the forges could be fatal.
Wenchang had learned much about the ways of the jianghu from Thousand-Hand Scholar and Valiant Tiger, so of course we was familiar with this taboo. Plus he was already looking for a way to burst into the limelight, so he had stepped in and displayed some of his skill.
The bare-chested man had already lost face when his ruler was knocked out of his hand, so he was angry. Then he'd put forth his question and Wenchang had actually stated frankly that he was not on anyone's side, nor had he spoken tactfully to allay the situation, so there was no room for him to back down. He was shamed into anger. "Alright, Cai. We'll see."
Wenchang waved his tongs lightly and sneered. "I'm not looking for trouble, just protecting the storefront. If you're not satisfied, I'll be here. I'm up for anything. For now, I have to ask you sirs to leave." He turned to Pit Viper. "Brother, since you're a man of the jianghu you ought not to have fought in my store. A real man takes responsibility for his actions. Why didn't you arrange a place to settle your dispute? Go on! If you're a lone visitor you'd better not cause trouble in Fine Horse Village."
He picked up the sabre and flung it. It clinked miraculously right into Pit Viper's scabbard.
Pit Viper chuckled and gave him a thumbs up. "Brilliant. There's no shame in losing face to you. I won't forget your help just now. We'll meet again. We must become friends." He cupped his hand over his fist and marched out of the shop. In the middle of the street he called out to the backs of the three bare-chested men about ten paces ahead of him. "Later, fellas."
The onlookers dispersed from the shop entrance and Wenchang returned to the forge and got back to work.
Two hours later a ten-year-old boy came in and got up on the long bench and jumped up and sat on the edge of the counter and smiled at the red-faced Second Uncle Di. "Second Uncle, do you remember this little monkey, Qiu the Sixth?"
Second Uncle Di groaned heavily. "You little son of a bitch! You're getting worse and worse. Hanging around Sickly Wuchang for not even two years and you're already a hopeless case. Your old man down there in the netherworld, he must have done some evil deeds in his day to father you, you little walking retribution.
Little Monkey Qiu the Sixth laughed happily and waved his hand. "Second Uncle, don't curse. My dad was bullied during his lifetime. Now this little monkey bullies others. My dad ought to be smiling down there in the netherworld."
"What are you here for?"
"I was sent here by Daddy Guo…"
"Hmph! Looking to give Master Cai trouble?"
"No! He wants to invite Master Cai to honor him with his presence." Little Monkey took out a large crimson calling card and placed it on the counter, then jumped down. "It's a huge honor to receive Daddy Guo's calling card. On the back is the time and place for tomorrow's banquet. Please give this to Master Cai." Having said this, he shot out like a gust of wind.
Soon after, a tall and slender middle-aged man with a pale face and no beard walked in leisurely and slid a large red envelope across the counter. "May I trouble you to pass this on to Master Cai." Then he turned and walked out.
Second Uncle Di weighed the envelope in his hand and shook his head with a wry smile. "Men fear fame like pigs fear fattening up. There's trouble afoot. There's a storm brewing in Fine Horse Village. A disaster or a blessing? Heaven protect us!"
The red envelope was sealed. Written on it were the words: Respectfully, to be opened by Master Cai Wenchang. It was signed: Sincerely, Han River Bald Flood Dragon Ling Yuan.
Wenchang read the two invitations and smiled faintly. Sickly Wuchang's calling card was inviting him to meet at Shangluo Inn's inner reception room tomorrow night. Flood Dragon's letter invited him to come to the southern docks tomorrow at noon.
Second Uncle Di sent a man at once to Village Head Zhang's mansion at the southeast end of town to report everything that had happened.
Translator’s Note: Here is a pic of an iron ruler:
百寶囊, a bag, usually of cloth or leather, used to carry necessities while traveling. ↩ 鐵尺, literally 'iron ruler'. It was a weapon used by constables much like a police baton, the blade blunt and flat like a ruler with a handle on the end, thus the name. Nowadays 鐵尺 also refers to the Japanese sai; it's possible the latter was developed from the former. ↩ This is a leather boot made from sewing two pieces of leather together so that there is a straight seam down the middle. ↩