Chapter 20: The Banquet
Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda put away their bags and set up their sleeping arrangements. "Black Iron Pagoda, let's drain a couple cups, then tonight we'll go deal with them together. Let me fill you in on what happened. Whether you go with me or not is up to you."
At night the lanterns were being lit in the market and the inns were bustling; people went back and forth through the reception room at the inner compound, but it wasn't noisy there. The clamor from outside did not affect them in there.
The reception room was ablaze with lights. Five tables had been set up for the feast. Several men stood sentry in the shadows around the perimeter of the room and out in the courtyard, on guard in case Bald Flood Dragon's men came to make trouble. At the back of the room faint voices were heard along with the sounds of two stringed instruments monotonously tuning up.
On the veranda at the front of the room ten to twenty people sat in two rows of round-backed chairs. Among them a tall, gaunt middle-aged man sat upright and steady, his grey hair drawn up in a Daoist bun. He had a triangular face with a protruding mouth and a long grey goatee, his goatlike eyes white and bulging and sinister, his complexion pale and sallow, his sharp chin matching his protruding mouth. His 八-shaped eyebrows made him look similar to Wuchang,1 the Ghost of Impermanence, and like a sickly emaciated corpse. He was the tyrant of Fine Horse Village, Sickly Wuchang Guo Zhixian, the top figure of the criminal underworld, the boss of the mass of scoundrels here.
Spirit Fox Li Peijie sat next to him. On the other side sat the famed Eight Thugs of Fine Horse Village. Too bad there were only seven of them; their senior, Walking Retribution, was laid up in bed recovering from his injuries and so was not in attendance.
Sickly Wuchang's sallow face was clouded, without expression. "Peijie, did you send someone to get him?"
"Big brother, I sent Little Monkey Qiu the Sixth. Ah! Here he is now!"
The back door of the front courtyard creaked open and Little Monkey Qiu the Sixth leapt in and yelled, "Master Cai and Black Iron Pagoda have arrived."
The men on the veranda stood as the large frames of Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda entered the courtyard. Sickly Wuchang led his men down to greet them. Wenchang stopped fifty or sixty feet away and cupped his hand over his fist in greeting. "I am here in response to your esteemed invitation. I didn't dare not come. If I offended you earlier today, my apologies."
Sickly Wuchang was the big boss of Fine Horse Village, normally looking down over everyone, but today he was unusually courteous, his face wearing a rare smile. He bent forward slightly. "Little brother Cai is too kind. These past two years little brother Cai has stayed at Zhang Ironware, not revealing his true talent; our brothers have eyes but did not recognize Mt. Tai, and not only wronged but disturbed our honorable little brother. We deserve punishment, and I feel guilty about what happened. Tonight I have specially prepared this banquet to apologize and thank you for your presence. I am in your debt."
Wenchang politely declined this flattery, then said, "Since you favored me with this invitation I had to come. I have brought a friend uninvited. I wonder if I can introduce him?"
Spirit Fox said, "Everyone knows about the scuffle at the entrance. Within the four seas all men are brothers. Allow me to welcome you on behalf of the rest of us brothers."
Black Iron Pagoda bellowed, "So f*ckin' longwinded, not at all the straightforward talk of a man of the jianghu, going on for days, goddamn. Me, I'm Black Iron Pagoda Fan Ruhai."
Sickly Wuchang's face sank, but he restrained himself and smiled. "Little brother Fan is really frank, a true man of the jianghu. Brothers, allow me to introduce myself. I am Sickly Wuchang Fan Ruhai."
After all the introductions had been made, Spirit Fox raised his hand in invitation. "You two brothers, please be seated and we can have a cordial, hearty talk."
"Daddy Guo, after you," Wenchang said politely.
Sickly Wuchang led the way up the stairs. Black Iron Pagoda barked, "That's more like it. Who could stand going on and on like that?"
Inside, Sickly Wuchang took the host's seat and Wenchang the seat of honor. Spirit Fox sat to the right, Black Iron Pagoda to the left. Only these four sat at this table, though there were eight stools.
The other four tables sat eight a piece and a dozen or more attendants stood all around serving food and pouring drinks.
"Food and drink are served," someone called out clearly.
Black Iron Pagoda brayed, "What? By the looks of this fancy get up it seems they're gonna f*ckin' serve each course one by one. I've eaten at many a jianghu banquet, but never have I seen each course served one by one. Only those greedy officials and local tyrants put on such a stinking display. Hey, Don't be so stingy, okay? Isn't it much better to bring it all at once?"
"Black Iron Pagoda, don't be rude," Wenchang said.
Spirit Fox chuckled. "Brother Fan is right. Us men of the jianghu have no use for such extravagance. Serve the dishes, bring it all. Remove these cups and exchange them for large bowls."
"That's more like it." Black Iron Pagoda grinned.
Drinks were served. A large earthen jar of gaoliang2 liquor. All manner of beef and lamb accompanied it; there was no fish or other seafood.
An attendant came forward to pour the liquor, but Black Iron Pagoda beat him to it. After three rounds of drinks, Sickly Wuchang stood. "Brothers, put down your wine bowls. I have a few minor words to say to little brother Cai. Little brother Cai, let me down a bowl first so that I can air my bottled-up emotions."
He downed the bowl with a bitter look on his face. "These past few years, yes, Fine Horse Village has become more and more prosperous, and naturally profits have increased. This has drawn the covetous eyes of outsiders. Countless men with greed in their hearts. And so our situation here becomes more and more difficult…"
"Hey! Are you done yet? So longwinded." Black Iron Pagoda was impatient.
Sickly Wuchang couldn't put up with it any longer. "You jianghu vagrant," he said sternly, "we respect you as little brother Cai's friend and so treated you courteously, but you keep carrying on. What's the meaning of this?"
Black Iron Pagoda jumped up. "F*ckin' Sickly fella, what are you squawking about? Is this entertaining guests? Or venting grievances? I was once an honored guest at Nine Peaks Fort Eighteen of Mt. Taihang, and I once went to the Five Hegemons of Anqing's banquet in Anqing prefecture; I've ransacked Wudang's Winding Dragon Temple and overturned Shaolin Monastery's Second Ancestor Convent. I've been to every big event. Me coming here as an outlaw to this small f*ckin' place is an honor for you, yet you look down on me like a snob and keep talking on and on, who are you? If you're not convinced then call all your men out here. If I can't whip every one of them then I won't eat your shitty food and drink."
Everyone was furious now. Black Iron Pagoda jumped over and grabbed an ebony bench and raise his right palm and smashed it down seven or eight times, smashing the bench up like tofu until it was whittled down to nothing but a leg, the floor strewn with wood chips. He raised the bench leg and roared, "Anyone's f*ckin' head harder than this bench? I doubt it."
He threw down the leg and reached down and his long whip suddenly lashed out toward a pillar like an angry, twisting dragon. It cracked against the pillar and shook the roof, opening up a nearly footlong gouge in the pillar, which was big around enough for you to wrap your arms around it. He glared at everyone. "Even those with iron shirt skills to withstand sharp weapons can't take a lash of my whip. Whoever has a waist thicker than that pillar can come on and try me. If my whip doesn't cut you in half I will f*ckin' kowtow to you a hundred times."
Everyone was scared to death by these two displays. Sickly Wuchang felt a chill all over, hopeless fear gleaming in his eyes.
Black Iron Pagoda hmphed. "You all are frogs in a well, inexperienced, always calling yourselves fugitives and outlaws. In reality, if you all ran around out there you'd likely get yourselves killed. Either jianghu or martial fraternity, what kind of fugitive heroes are you? Outside of Fine Horse Village you couldn't scare a f*ckin' rat. Scared shitless by that third rate bastard Bald Flood Dragon, yet you talk yourselves up like big heroes in front of me, you gotta be f*ckin' kidding me. Prick up your swine ears and listen: no need to f*ckin' call yourselves heroes. Be good and toast us a few drinks, then give your big brother's position to this Fugitive fella, and let us two handle it and run that f*ckin' bastard Bald Flood Dragon out of here. And don't put on those pitiful faces like your parents just died."
When he was finished he put his whip back and sat down with a bold flourish and poured himself a large bowl of liquor.
Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox looked at each other in silence.
Black Iron Pagoda wolfed down a hunk of chicken and pointed to Wenchang. "Hey! What are you looking at me like that for? If you want to stand out in the jianghu and establish your domain, you need money, and your fists. If you don't have money, then to start out you have to rely on your fists. If you don't show them what they can do then no one will submit to you. So show them what you've got!"
Wenchang smiled at Sickly Wuchang apologetically. "I don't want to be rude to Daddy Guo, but it really is necessary to show my ability. Pardon."
He calmly got up from his seat and took out ten copper coins and gave them to Spirit Fox. "Please toss these up in any direction, from one to five at a time, at your discretion."
Spirit Fox took the coins and suddenly tossed out five of them, then tossed the other five in the opposite direction. It all happened in the blink of an eye.
Wenchang whipped his hands out and sat down. "I made a fool of myself."
There was no sound of concealed weapons cutting through the room, but several metallic clinks lingered in the air, like raindrops drumming against banana leaves along the walls.
Everyone looked left and right and gasped, their eyes wide, mouths open.
On the left, every coin was pierced through its center square hole by a silver-plumed dart, nailed twinkling to the wall. Five coins in all.
On the right five willowleaf knives nailed five coins fast to the wall, all coins still intact and not cut in half.
Black Iron Pagoda got up and took down the darts and knives and dropped them on the table with a clink. He shook his head and grinned. "Heavens! What f*ckin' demonry is this? Such fast, ruthless, accurate weapons. Really deadly. Must be sleight of hand."
Wenchang picked up a knife and pulled it apart from the coin and raised his hand. "Hard to hit a square hole in a coin that's flying through the air. Look, this one was slanted a bit, nearly cut a piece off."
To convince friends of the martial fraternity one must rely on genuine talent. Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda had each displayed theirs, shocking Sickly Wuchang and his fugitive cohorts. They were terror-stricken; it was some time before they all came back to their senses.
Sickly Wuchang stood and bowed to Wenchang with his hands clasped before him. Still shaken, he said, "I am incompetent and blind. I'm speechless. I would like to address you two as big brother." He looked at his men. "If anyone objects, stand up and say it."
"Big brother Cai, we submit cheerfully," someone said.
"Big brother Cai."
"Big brother Cai…"
Wenchang spoke over the hubbub, "I am still young and unskilled, with no jianghu experience. I don't deserve to be called big brother. In my humble opinion, big brother Guo need not step aside. From now on we can work together under big brother Guo's command to provide for all you brothers. I want to sincerely be friends with you all; you mustn't quibble over position or rank. Otherwise, I will have to withdraw and not join you."
Deities charged with escorting the dead to the underworld, literally Ghost of Impermanence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heibai_Wuchang ↩ aka, kaoliang, a strong, clear, distilled liquor made from fermented sorghum. ↩