Chapter 44: Chang'an Tavern
Just before dawn, Wenchang reached the Gate of Everlasting Joy. He was splendidly dress but he didn't have a copper on him. He was walking in a hurry, his travel bag devoid of cash. He had to find some silver or it would be no joking matter.
He had arranged to meet Black Iron Pagoda under the drum tower. One wouldn't leave until the other showed up. The drum tower was in the center of the city. It was four stories high, about a hundred sixty feet tall, constructed in the city center during the seventeenth year of the Hongwu emperor's reign. From atop the tower one could see four huge, imposing city gates on each end of the city. Looking north, straight ahead along the large northern avenue was the Prince of Qin's royal residence at the end of the broad avenue. There was heavy traffic all along the main southern, eastern, and western avenues, the streets filled with pedestrians and horse carts. But there were few pedestrians along the northern avenue, though horse carriages came and went hurriedly, all carrying guest of influential and powerful families. The mansion was littered with compounds on both sides, many buildings extending far back with large courtyards, a large, tall archway over the gate, and a pair of stone lion statues on either side of the main gate. Armored guards populated the vicinity; loiterers rarely stuck around.
Wenchang had never been to this city before, but he only had to ask someone to find the drum tower, which was easy to find planted right in the center of the city. All the main avenues led to it, and he could see it as soon as he entered the Gate of Everlasting Joy.
Right outside the gates was the famed Changle Ward1, the vicinity of the eastern market of former times. The city walls encompassed a smaller space now, but Changle Ward, just outside the city, was still bustling; Xingqing Temple, Eight Immortals Temple, Eastern Peak Temple, and Azure Dragon Monastery were all here as well. The Chang'an liquor market was the most famous area here.
Changle Ward was not subject to the city's curfew restrictions, so it became lively at the top of the fifth watch, just before dawn. There were mule carts and handcarts everywhere. Peddlers with vegetables, rice, firewood, draft animals, and every other kind of daily necessity stood around waiting for the city gates to open. People and animals mingled, all squeezed into this same noisy area.
Wenchang arrived at Changle Ward amidst the lanterns and clamoring people.
Rooster crows rose and fell as the drum tower beat the fifth watch-three-point beats, and the heavy wooden gatebolt was lifted and the gates opened. A dozen official soldiers filed out on both sides, imposing, carrying sabred and spears and leather-thonged whips.
People began filing into the city, pedestrians and carts and all. Anyone not carrying goods in had to be checked by the troops, their travel permits inspected, but anyone carrying food or other goods with them could go in without being checked.
Wenchang was not eager to enter the city. His appointment wasn't until noon, and first he needed to find some money so he could buy something to eat to fill his stomach.
The crowd was full of peddlers and commoners chatting amongst each other. He would never bother with any of these people. He was on the lookout for a wealthy person.
He took a small alley to the north and turned a corner, passed by Xingqing Temple, then continued on north where he saw a small temple adjoining Xingqing Temple. It was small compared to Xingqing Temple, anyway. It wasn't really small, though. It had a large gate archway with a huge name board with large characters painted in gold: Built By Imperial Decree, Eight Immortals Temple.
During the Song this temple was called a lesser temple, but was upgraded to temple in the Yuan dynasty. Either way, it was a very famous temple. The eight immortals were housed within, and it was said that the immortal Lü Dongbin had met Han Zhongli here. These two, one from the Han dynasty, the other from the Tang, met here? What! The eight immortals also included He Xian'gu, the unmatched Lü Dongbin, Lan Caihe, and Han Xiangzi, so this temple had always been a place where women came to pray and burn incense; therefore it was very busy on the first and fifteenth of each month. This incense burning was a woman's affair, so the men who accompanied them had to wait around outside. Therefore, there were liquor stalls in great number all around where men would congregate to have a few while they waited.
If you wanted to burn incense you had to line up early in the morning and wait. Those inside the city would have to go outside the city the day before to wait, otherwise when morning came they would be stuck in a long line outside the city. Therefore, there were a lot of inns in the vicinity, all tall and luxurious inns that received ladies of wealthy families.
Not far to the left of the temple a famous large tavern was ablaze with lights. The signboard was carved with large gold characters that read: Chang'an Tavern.
It was a lively tavern. There was a parking lot in front, stables, hitching posts; it had everything. Carriages entered from the left up to the steps where someone came out to receive the guests and take them up the steps. Then the carriage wind around to the parking area to the right. It was carried out systematically, and it was spacious, the food and drink expensive, second only to Taibai Tavern along the southern main avenue. It was not unusual to pay a hefty sum per guest. Carp imported along the Yellow River from Luoyang was sold here, each one costing half year's worth of grain for a poor man.
Today was the fifteenth of the month. The snow had melted. It was clear and chilly, but not too chilly to the devout from coming to burn incense and pray to the gods. The inns were all booked solid from the previous day. Even the inns at Baqiao, ten miles away, were packed full.
Eight Immortals Temple seethed with people, all of them women, each dressed more finely than the last. Smoke curled up to the rafters and bells and gongs chimed continuously. Outside the temple gates, family servants and men lingered and hung around.
It was bustling inside Chang'an Tavern; the parking lot was full, the area full of the clamor of people and horses.
There were few taverns in the city where women and men could commingle, but Chang'an Tavern was one of them. There were private rooms on the second floor of the inner wing where whole families were served together.
Another tall building on the left was a different scene. Not only did young and pretty bar girls served wine, and even pretty girls of humble families could be recruited. This tavern only served frequent customers, and it was closed off on the first and fifteenth of the month to avoid trouble from women come to burn incense. The shopkeeper couldn't deal with fierce, indignant women.
Within the main hall and second floor, servants and page boys were in attendance with wealthy guests in private rooms, all of them people of status; it was not chaotic in the slightest. Those well-acquainted sat together and chatting while drinking, talking and laughing filling the room.
Wenchang had heard about famous places in the city from Outcast Androgyne, so he didn't look like a tourist. He swaggered up the steps of Chang'an Tavern. His silver robe and vest made him look wealthy. People judged based on appearance; it's been the same since ancient times. His outfit would earn him respect, despite the fact he didn't have a copper on him.
Four attendants waited outside the tavern. Ah, a distinguished guest has arrived! Smartly dressed from head to foot, and handsome as all get out. If he's not the young master of a wealthy family then he is certainly the son of a high official. He might even be from the Prince of Qin's family!
"Welcome sir, welcome! Our humble establishment is honored by your presence. Please! Please! We have a private room upstairs. Allow me to lead the way." An attendant bowed and smiled.
Wenchang smiled faintly and tossed his hand out carelessly. "Lead the way, if you will." Turns out he knew how to act the part; his demeanor was spot-on.
Just then two dirty beggars stole up the steps. Two of the attendants frowned. "Are you two going to leave or not? Looking for trouble? Get out of here!"
The attendant led Wenchang to the stairs where two more attendants came forward to greet him. The first attendant excused himself and went back to the entrance.
The others led Wenchang up the stairs. The sun was just rising, but the tavern was already ablaze with lights. There were over forty seats with about thirty people present. Wenchang was led to a large mahogany table by a northside window, then the attendant excused himself and others came over to greet him. It was a stylish place with a lot of helpers.
Two immaculately-dressed attendants approached and smiled. One stood behind Wenchang and bowed his head slightly. "Sir, please remove your coat and I will put it away for you."
Wenchang slipped the overcoat off and said thank you and the attendant hung it up on a coat rack. Wenchang said confidently, "Bring me a hotpot and four dishes to complement a a jug of baijiu2, an aged one of the highest grade. I never drink anything aged under twenty years."
"Not to worry, sir, our humble establishment serves wine aged thirty years and up. As for the dishes…"
"Bring me the finest, most expensive specialties you serve," Wenchang cut in.
"Of course, of course! I will place your order at once." His seat was great; there were eight large, empty tables behind him, most likely reserved for people of higher status than himself.
Wenchang had been a hooligan for a while at Fine Horse Village, had consorted with men from all walks of life there, so he was familiar with every ruse and trick. He has decided, had resigned himself to being a genuine vagrant fugitive. Those three days spent with Outcast Androgyne had changed his way of thinking. He would no longer quibble about the little things in order to survive. He would be bold, and shameless.
The hotpot was mutton stock, the four dishes were roast duck, dried venison, beef tendons, and smoked water deer. Wenchang let the attendant pour the wine then sent them away so he could eat alone and take a look at the people around him.
Everyone seated were local gentry, some fat and fleshy, some free and easy, with domestic servants and page boys in tow, talking and laughing cheerfully about trifling matters of city life. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except at the table in front of him on the right, where two big men dressed in narrow-sleeved attire and wearing swords sat. Their robes were embroidered with a variety of flowers, and a plain, cloud-shaped silver medallion hung from their broad belts. One look and he could tell these two had connections, perhaps low-ranking officers to the Prince of Qin, or maybe officers from the one of the families of the Three Capital Guards. But from the swords at their waists they looked like bodyguards, because if they were officers then they would be wearing sabres, not swords, so it was striking.
These two men were accompanying two big, fat middle-aged men who were conversing in low voices, very low so it was not easy to hear what they were saying.
Wenchang glanced at the two men with swords. These men have spirited eyes, he thought, like two large suns. Healthy complexions, lustrous hair. They're definitely masters of internal and external force. They have incredibly sharp eyes. I have to be careful.
The men glanced at Wenchang, then went on looking elsewhere as if they paid him no mind.
Wenchang drank and planned.
Guests continued to arrive upstairs; attendants led them past Wenchang's seat. The first group were three finely-dressed gentry, each with a servant in tow, each servant carrying a case and money bags.
Wenchang didn't want to target the servants. His eyes were on the gentry, but they always had people carry their money for them, and the money bags at their waists they had on them was covered up by fur coats, so it would be very difficult to get to it. Besides, what could he do with so many people around?
He waited for an opportunity, palming two shuttle-shaped throwing knives in his right hand.
His chance came. The second group of guests were three slender, tipsy-looking middle-aged men. Their sheepskin coats were draped over their arms and only one had a servant with him. They stopped at the table in front of Wenchang and exchanged courtesies with each other. "Please Mr. Zhi, after you."
The second man said, "How could I overstep my place? Please, Sir Liang, you sit first."
The third man, Sir Liang, smiled and extended his hand. "No no, Mr. Zhi, you go ahead."
After exchanging courtesies, they all started off at the same time, but the passage was too narrow for all of them at once. They laughed. "No need to be formal, let's be seated!"
Changle = Everlasting Joy ↩ a clear grain liquor made from fermented sorghum ↩