Chapter 46: The Three Heroes of Chang'an
Wenchang bounded across two rooftops and came to a street that ran laterally. It wasn't a good idea to be on the rooftops in broad daylight, but just as he was about to jump down the two beggars who had been at the tavern entrance earlier appeared. One of them smiled and beckoned to him. "Get down quick, little brother. Come with us, we'll take you to a place to hide out for the time being."
There was no one else on the street so Wenchang jumped down, light as a feather. The beggars gave him a thumbs up. "Nice, little brother. Light as a feather; the world is your playground."
Wenchang smiled faintly and cupped a hand over his fist. "You're too kind. You two are…"
The one who had called to him laughed and patted his beggar's bag. "We're the chieftains of the Xi'an chapter of the Destitute Gang. I'm Odd Beggar Feng Tao. He is Mad Beggar Lang Xiatian."
The Destitute Gang was not a real gang; they just called it that. And chieftain was just a word they used carelessly to identify themselves. Beggars didn't really have a structured organization, though they empathized with each other and often helped each other out. But when even making a living was no easy feat, how could they have time to form an organization?
Wenchang sized them up properly now, but he had his doubts. Odd Beggar Feng Tao was tall and sturdy with a dishevelled, curly beard and large, bovine-like eyes, and upturned nose, and he stank to high heaven.
Mad Beggar was in his sixties, with a long face and bulbous nose and a mouth like a catfish and a grey goatee. He was lanky with a crooked grin on his face, though he wasn't smiling. He carried a rattan dog-beating cane; his ripped cotton-padded clothes revealed black cotton-fiber stuffing.
Hmm, this guy looks like the one who tricked me before, only he has a different-shaped face, Wenchang thought.
He had been resentful ever since that night that old beggar had tricked him. He pointed a finger at Odd Beggar Feng Tao. "Feng, were you in the vicinity of Baqiao recently?"
Odd Beggar was taken aback, but he just laughed in his grating way. "Nonsense! I stay in the city, begging in the streets by day and sleeping in the city god temple at night. Why would I want to go cold and starving in Baqiao?"
Wenchang relaxed. "Fellas, we've never met before. You go your way, I'll go mine."
"Little brother, you must be new junior of the jianhu come to this city for the first time. You're unfamiliar with the place and are in need of friends. You created a disturbance at Commander Leng's tavern, caused a big scene. The authorities will be out looking for you before long and they'll certainly catch you and take you before the magistrate. There's no place to stay in the city. But as the saying goes, 'within the four seas, all men are brothers'. We're all men of the jianghu here; it's only right to lend a helping hand. Come with us and we'll help fix you up; otherwise, you'll be in a lot of trouble."
"Thanks for going to all this trouble," Wenchang said. "Let's go."
Odd Beggar led the way in haste. "What's your name, little brother?" he said offhand.
"My family name is Cai, given name Wenchang."
"Little Brother Cai, are you the one who stole from Bloodsucker Feng?"
"That guy is vermin. We'll clean him out one of these days. Good work, little brother."
The three of them winded through the side streets as they neared the city wall. Odd Beggar went straight to a gloomy, run-down house and knocked lightly on the unlocked, peeling door.
The wooden doors creaked open halfway. Odd Beggar stepped inside and laughed wildly. "Hey! Come see this young friend who took a pint of blood from the Bloodsucker on his first day in our city."
Wenchang followed them through a curtain and stepped into the parlor and was taken aback.
It was not a large room, but there were many people seated around a square table. Three middle-aged men reclined leisurely at the table, wearing open sheepskin coats over blue narrow-sleeved robes, three pairs of straight-seamed boots propped up on the table. They turned their heads to look, using their stares to welcome the three enter the room.
On either side of the room two rows of chairs set up every which way, nine people sitting with legs propped up on low tables or with their legs crossed, some with their faces half-covered by capes, some napping, twelve in all, between the ages of thirty and forty. They looked ordinary, nothing special about them at all, except their eyes were more penetrating than most.
The clothing of the three in the middle was tidy and they were pretty much the same age. One had a 八-shaped mustache, one a 一-shaped mustache, and the other had no mustache. Other than that their faces looked about the same. One look and it was obvious they were brothers. Round faces, large noses, straight and bushy eyebrows, big front teeth sticking out. They were imposing figures, daggers stuck in their belts. When they saw a guest enter the room they stood languidly, their fierce eyes shining.
"Welcome, welcome," the one with the 八-shaped mustache said, clasping his hands in greeting.
Odd Beggar extended his big hand toward the three and said, "Little Brother Cai, allow me to introduce this city's famed Three Heroes of Chang'an."
Wenchang had never heard of the Three Heroes of Chang'an. There were a lot of people he had never heard of! But from the looks of them he could tell they were rough customers. From the way they carried themselves he figured they might be local big shots.
That's fine, he thought. I'll get to the bottom of things first. Maybe I can use them.
The other nine around the room also slowly stood.
Wenchang cupped a hand over his fist in greeting to the Three Heroes of Chang'an. "I am Cai Wenchang. Sorry for the rude interruption."
The one with the 八-shaped mustache laughed. "I'm Rong Shiming, called Winged Tiger."
Odd Beggar gestured to the other two. "The one with the straight mustache is the second eldest, Nighthawk Rong Shiqun, and the other is the youngest, Traceless Snowwalker Rong Shijie." Then he said to the Three Heroes, "Brother Cai's lightness skill is not inferior to you good brothers. You all can become closer in the future."
"Elder is too kind," Wenchang said. "I'm embarrassed."
Winged Tiger laughed. "No need to be modest, little brother. Men of the jianghu like us need not exaggerate. In this city, us brothers are nothing much. These two beggars here, though, are the real outstanding ones. If they sat your lightness skill is good, then it must be so. First of all, you must understand us brothers' background, otherwise you might be uneasy. We have property here in the city, but we are absolutely genuine men of the jianghu. We help mediate disputes in the streets; you could say we are Mr. Agreeable. Behind the scenes we help right wrongs, rob from the rich and give to the poor and punish local despots. Little brother, do you dare befriend us?"
Wenchang chuckled. "This is my first day here and I was almost caught stealing. If you good brothers don't mind my crudeness, I'd be delighted to be friends."
"Good. Let me introduce everyone who will be looking after you in the days to come."
Winged Tiger introduced the nine others, then said, "This is our secret meeting place. If you ever need any help, just come here. Little brother, tell us about how you punished Bloodsucker."
Wenchang told them what had happened at the tavern. Then he said, "Who is this Bloodsucker guy anyway?"
"It's a long story." Winged Tiger shook his head. "That Feng guy is a contemptible creature. In a word, rich and heartless. No one in this city likes that son of a bitch, aside from the local authorities."
"Brother Rong, why don't you punish him?" Wenchang asked.
"He has connections with the government, and has backing within the yamen. His house is on the corner of the west and north main avenues. On his right is Northwest Escort Agency. Not far behind him is the mansion of the former Vice Commissioner of the Left, Shi Ruokui, who retired last year. If you caused trouble around that area there would be no turning back. Besides, that guy loves money more than life, but he does fork it out to hire bodyguards. He has three great masters from Shaolin in Henan who are all excellent. One is Iron Finger Qi Ying, one is Mao Xingbang The Mighty, and the other is Wave-Cleaving Sabre Yu Jiang. Aside from these three masters, he has eight other equally impressive guards. Think about it, who would dare provoke him? Even Northwest Escort Agency is friendly with him. There's no way we could take him down. His family went to Eight Immortals Temple this morning to burn incense and make offerings, and his three bodyguards went with them and waited outside the temple while he and his friends went to Chang'an Tavern alone. Otherwise you likely would not have been able to escape."
"Is he some hegemon in this city?"
"He wouldn't call himself a hegemon. The one who'd dare call himself that is Divine Spear Yang Hu, the head of Northwest Escort Agency. He's pretty much like Bloodsucker, taking advantage of the poor; many have been taken in by his usury, and he's got who knows how many properties. The interest rates on his loans are exorbitantly high, and once you're involved he's got you, so many people have been taken in by him. Interest is fifty percent on the tael, and it's compounded, ending up worth ten taels of debt in a year. Those in debt to him are in a world of hurt, to the point some end up having to sell off sons and daughters, or else hang themselves or jump in the river. Dirty son of a bitch!"
"So, Brother Rong, you mean…"
"One day I will find my opportunity and send him to the City of the Damned."
"As long as both sides are in agreement, usury is not a capital offense, Brother Rong," Wenchang said.
"You're right, but the person who makes the deal with them in the first place only tells them the first part of it, then later they change the terms…"
"The authorities don't care?"
"How can the poor take it to court? Even if they appeal to higher authorities, no one would hear the case."
Wenchang nodded. He abruptly said, "I have a score to settle with him; I'll go find him later."
"Little brother, it's best you not beat the grass and alert the snake for now."
"I know. I have some business to attend to in the city. I'll call on you gentlemen again when I have time."
Winged Tiger was surprised. "You're going to enter the city?"
"Commander Leng has already alerted the authorities. How can you get in?"
"I have to go anyway."
"Alright, I have some extra clothes here. Change into them first. Your purple-silver get-up is too conspicuous. If you don't change I guarantee you'll run into trouble when you get to the city gates."
Before long, Wenchang had changed into blue attire, including a blue cloak, and he changed his hat as well, the earflaps hanging down as he hurried toward the Gate of Everlasting Joy. His purple-silver clothes were wrapped in a teal cloth bundle he carried under his arm. He looked like a different person.
Odd Beggar and Winged Tiger saw Wenchang off, then went back inside, laughing. "That kid has sharp eyes; he nearly recognized me. That was was close! A few punches didn't knock the sense out of him. He's really shrewd."
Winged Tiger grinned. He's clearly nothing special, couldn't even take your punches. Why does the master favor him so much? Weird. What use could someone like that be?"
"You're wrong! I knocked him out that time not because he wasn't any good, but because I didn't give him a chance to hit back. To be honest, he's more or less the same level as me. If we fought for real I don't know who would win. The master is already off tracking down Black Flag Sovereign. We can't get careless. Helping him out has made the situation stickier." Odd Beggar wagged his head, please with himself.
"Should we do it ourselves?"
"No need. Helping him behind the scenes is good enough. Haha! The master's thinking was on the money. Dragging him in and turning him into a thief, he definitely won't befriend Black Flag Sovereign; he'll take them as enemies. Dog eat dog. Once he lets word out that Black Flag Sovereign and Endless Valley are in cahoots, the rest of the jianghu will take notice, and then something big will go down!" Odd Beggar laughed maniacally.
A deafening voice suddenly rang from the rafters. "Ah! So it was you all who goaded him into becoming a thief. No wonder you're laughing so proudly."
Everyone in the room was startled. Someone had been hiding there in the middle of the day without them noticing, a huge failure on their part.
A grey image suddenly floated down from the rafters like a grey cloud, robe billowing, like a formless spirit.