Chapter 15: Negotiations
Wenchang and the girl in white had come to blows over a few words and had begun fighting in the street. The girl had seized the chance to put her consummate skills to use, her hand strikes launching Wenchang back ten feet. But Wenchang had reacted swiftly, using his precelestial true qi from his underdeveloped ultimate breathing to protect himself, along with the leather bracer he wore, pulling away as soon as she made contact and avoiding her claw attack.
Zhang Ziyu, standing in the doorway watching the fight, was shocked. Seeing that girl use "Gold Dragon Turning Claw", the consummate move of Enigmatic Withering Palm, told him who she was. But his exclamation was too soft; no one heard him.
The girl noticed that Wenchang seemed to have been hit, which surprised her, but she pounced on him, extending another violent hand.
Wenchang's arm was numb and achy. He was unable to use it. He roared and whipped his left leg around and flurried with his right, kicking eighteen times. His kicks were blindingly fast, his assault overwhelming. He didn't care if it was a boy or girl, the mid and lower body was fair game for his attacks, a shockingly aggressive offense. As soon as one foot was in the air the other was right behind it, eighteen kicks in smooth succession, forcing the girl back ten feet or so. She had to change position eight times before she finally got away from his flurry of kicks.
She had used her consummate skill without a hitch, but it had not had the effect she had hoped for. She had to respect Wenchang's power and not meet him head on. In the midst of that storm of kicks she only managed to return seven palm strikes herself under the threat of his unprecedented and fierce attack. In no time at all it was her in the disadvantageous position. But she still maintained her calm and graceful poise, lightly and deftly advancing and retreating like the wind among the riot of kicks.
The girl in green was standing in wait, her powdered face breaking out in a charming smile, seemingly unconcerned about their fierce life-and-death struggle.
A crowd had gathered in the street, cheering them on with thunderous applause. The last kick was a cross, but the girl didn't meet it. Just as the tip of his foot was an inch away from her she stepped to the left and closed in from behind and struck at Wenchang's back with "Great Stele-Felling Hand". Her strike was silent, but the force of the air being pushed around it could be felt a foot away, the ruthless strength of an internal artist's palm strike. It would be fatal if it connected.
Wenchang bent forward, his nineteenth kick a "Tiger Stretches Its Back", his left foot shooting backward toward the girl's midsection, at the same time dodging her palm strike, meeting offense with offense. The girl changed her slap to a cut and slipped right and attacked the back of his knee.
He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head; his leg suddenly sank down at the last moment as his other leg came out, his twentieth move, "Tiger Tail Kick", attacking close to the ground.
He just so happened to intercept her where she had dodged, both of them moving fast, no time to think what to do, just instinctively attacking and defending.
She was unable to duck out of the way and so reflexively swept her leg out to knock his away, but they were too fast, both fighting desperately.
Their legs slammed together and the two of them separated quickly. The girl was unstable, staggering back five or six paces before she could find her footing.
Wenchang nearly fell and had to use his hands to catch himself, but he couldn't put weight on his right arm, so he sprang off his back foot to the left and rolled ten feet. His right leg felt like it had been hit by a thousand-catty sledgehammer, the pain surging up through his heart and spleen. He could barely get up, struggling to his feet, the color draining from his handsome face.
The girl was enraged. She scowled. "You must be one of Bald Flood Dragon's backers. I'll kill you."
She yelled and charged.
Wenchang was not only worried, he also clenched his teeth. He never imagined this naughty girl could fight so viciously, using acupressure techniques and stone-splitting palm strikes. Seemed she was not about to give up until he was dead. There was no animosity between them, so why was she trying to kill him? He didn't get it. In just one day someone had tried to take his life twice, how frightening. Nowadays the weak suffered. Was his life really so worthless? Throughout this conflict with Bald Flood Dragon he had never thought about killing, even though they were trying to kill him.
He was no longer capable of protecting himself. In imminent danger, an irrepressible urge to kill surged within him. He steeled himself. His right arm was useless, and his dagger was sheathed on the bracer on his other arm so he couldn't take it out. He stuck his left hand into his right sleeve and removed three throwing knives. He clenched his teeth. "Today, I, Cai Wenchang, will kill."
At that critical juncture the girl was still coming on, the three knives just about to leave his hand, when at the end of the street nine horses charged up, parting the crowd, a man yelling, "Girl, look what you've done! Stop!"
The girl unhappily came to a halt.
The horses were running nine abreast, blocking the street. Mounted on the last two horses were two burly fellows holding the point of a throwing knife in their right hands, facing Wenchang, watching him coldly, ready to throw.
On a bay horse in the center sat a middle-aged man with sharp, upward-slanting eyebrows and fierce eyes, a bronze complexion, and a black three-tufted beard billowing in the wind.
"Dad, your daughter found one of Bald Flood Dragon's henchmen," the girl said.
The man's face darkened, unhappy. "They already sent someone to Dongting to apologize, why won't you let it go? Child, a girl carrying on in the middle of the street, stirring up trouble and showing off in public, you're really too wild. Meiru, what's going on?"
The pretty girl in green hung her head. "Uncle, you mustn't blame little cousin for lashing out. This guy is way too arrogant."
Wenchang was silent. He put his knives away and walked over to where his bundle lay on the ground and hoisted it up and made to leave.
"Just a moment, pugilist," the man on horseback called out loud and clear.
Wenchang paid no attention. He was his own man. The beat of hooves sounded as a man on the right charged forward.
"Chengkui, come back," the middle-aged man said.
The man reined in, turned his horse, and went back to his original position.
Wenchang reached the crowd of onlookers and turned and said, coldly, "Earlier I started a feud with Bald Flood Dragon with a throwing knife. Now there's a dispute between yourselves and I. I hope one day we can resolve this matter…"
"Eh, you're not one of Bald Flood Dragon's men?" the girl exclaimed.
"Hmph!" That was his only response.
The girl looked ashamed. She reached into her travel bag and took out a waxy pill and held it up. "Forgive me for what happened just now! Your arm is badly injured. If it's not cured soon it might be crippled. This special pill can cure it. Eat half and apply the other half externally and it will be better within three days."
She tossed him the pill, her big diamond eyes watching him apologetically, a good-natured smile on her face.
He didn't catch it but dodged to the side and the pill fell to the ground. He stepped on it and crushed it to powder. He snorted again and pushed through the crowd. His big frame was strong and solid, his gait unhurried.
The girl's smile froze and she hmphed, about to charge ahead, when her elder cousin grabbed her and said quietly, "Little cousin, don't make things even worse."
The middle-aged man smiled faintly. "Girl, this is the best lesson for you. You've encountered someone who's even more arrogant than you are. Haha! Mount up."
Her face paled as she stared daggers at Wenchang's back. Silently, she leapt up onto the horse.
The eleven horses had passed two shops when the middle-aged man suddenly said, "We'll stop here for the night, then rest at Lantian Pass tomorrow."
He spun his horse around and dismounted and hitched up at Shangluo Inn. Wenchang had already disappeared inside the inn.
Shangluo Inn was not a small establishment. The rooms in the first two rows had wide beds so lone travelers who wanted to save some money could bunk with others for the night. The western compound also had two rows filled with quiet guest rooms. Behind the western compound were three separate buildings, each with a little path leading through a moon gate and separated by enclosing walls, each an independent unit. These buildings were for receiving officials passing through. A relay station's accommodations were very crude and simple; when a station functionary received a high official, they would receive them here instead where it was not only quiet and secluded, it was also furnished with all the amenities.
The party of eleven men and women rented one of the individual compounds. Wenchang was staying in the second row of guest rooms in the western compound. There was a long window on the right side of his room that faced the rear reception room of the main compound. This reception room was was the place Sickly Wuchang had arranged to meet him.
If an inn didn't attract enough customers or guests who spent money freely then it would have closed down long ago. The proprietor of Shangluo Inn was Sickly Wuchang's buddy, who everyone called Iron Counter Xu Yiqing, well known in Fine Horse Village. When Wenchang took up lodging here he was very generous, not making things difficult at all. This was where he excelled others. If he had refused there could have been big trouble.
At the beginning of the double-hour of the monkey1 Wenchang was already settled in. He knew how men of the jianghu were. A meeting was never a peaceful one, a banquet never a pleasant one. Tonight might be bad, so he had to rest up and replenish his energy. He had wild ambitions. He intended to use the thugs of Fine Horse Village as his foothold into the jianghu, then gradually expand. He had vengeance to exact; he had to utilize this opportunity to stand out from the pack and burst into the jianghu with fists swinging and kick open the gates of the martial fraternity. He was already resolved to throw himself into the seedy underbelly of society. Whatever the cost, he wouldn't begrudge it.
His right arm wasn't an impediment. He had moved it around a bit and rubbed alcohol into it and was already back to normal. It was nothing serious.
He tidied up and got ready and opened the window in the outer room where he constantly stood sizing up the situation at tonight's appointed place, his mind already prepared.
There were four loud knocks on his door. He went to the side and said evenly, "Enter!"
It was an inn attendant who bowed and asked, "Master Cai, there are several strangers outside requesting an audience. Will Master Cai receive them?"
"Please send them in," he said without hesitation.
The attendant took his leave and soon returned leading two burly men and a gaunt middle-aged man into the room, then he closed the door and left.
Wenchang saw they weren't armed and gestured to a line of chairs to the left. "Please have a seat, sirs. I am Cai Wenchang. We've never met before. I wonder for what reason you have honored me with your visit? Please introduce yourselves." Actually, he already knew who they were.
The gaunt one smiled and cupped a hand over his fist in greeting, and sat. "I am Chai Hua. We wouldn't come here for no reason."
"Brother Chai, are you one of Manager Ling's brothers?"
"I won't try to deceive you. I have received the manager's precious order to come here to consult with Brother Cai."
"First, I have to ask if Brother Chai has full authority to represent the manager?"
"I am the manager's trusted advisor. I can speak for him about seven tenths."
"Seven tenths won't do. I must speak with the manager's full representative."
"The manager has given me full authority."
"Good. First let me hear what you have to say. Is this about the conditions I outlined earlier?"
"Just so. The manager feels there is no problem at all with your condition of taking charge of the shops by yourself. Except… Except the forty/sixty split. Can Brother Cai compromise on that point?"
"Forty/sixty is extremely fair. I ask for the manager's cooperation."
"The manager feels that given the multitude of brothers here, according to established practice it ought to be twenty/eighty…"
"Please tell the manager the split will be fifty/fifty," Wenchang cut in.
Chai Hua's face tightened. He stood. "Brother Cai, why the change?"
"Forty/sixty. You forty, I sixty." Wenchang's tone was frosty.
"What?" Chai Hua cried with a jolt. "You…"
"Thirty/seventy," Wenchang was said deliberately. "You thirty, I seventy."
"Brother Cai, are you playing games with me?"
Wenchang's face darkened. He smiled. "Brother Chai, I never play games. I have absolutely no intention of playing games with you. If this continues, the amount will become lower and lower."
"Damn you, you're really taking things too far."