Chapter 55: Pandemonium
The shop was run by two brothers, who managed the counter and waited on the guests. Their wives and children worked in the kitchen. The shop had a backroom and a small door to go in and out, though it usually remained closed and food and drinks were served through a serving window. The younger brother greeted the guests, extending his hand toward the tables. "It's cold out today, thank you for honoring us with your presence. Please, have a seat."
He was experienced, so he didn't look down on the little beggar because of his shabby clothes. A beggar, a huge, intimidating swarthy-faced man, and a handsome young man in silver-purple clothes was already striking enough. They were clearly special people, extraordinary people. These kinds of people were difficult to serve, but they were straightforward.
The little beggar set down his dog-beating staff and plopped down at the table. "Bring us a few juga of good wine and some good dishes to go with it, then prepare us some steamed buns to fill our bellies and ward off the cold."
"Would… you like to specify the dishes?"
"No need. You decide. Uncle, we're not new here."
"I'll get it ready for you. Please wait a moment."
There were a dozen tables, five of them occupied. Five men wearing a robe with a sheepskin overcoat sat at the table to their right, five pairs of stark, glittering eyes glancing at the three of them. Four tall lamaists dressed in red sat at the table to their left, their monk caps stuffed into their collars. Monks at a tavern drinking wine must be lamaists.
At a table on the right opposite them in the corner sat an elderly man and a girl. The elderly man wasn't too old, about fifty or so, but his three-tufted beard that came to his chest was already salted with grey, so he was considered elderly. He was big and tall with a square face and a straight nose and square mouth, his clear eyes big with large pupils. They were spirited eyes that yet betrayed a ray of kindness.
The girl was dressed in white; a white narrow-sleeved top and matching pants that tied at the cuff, and deerskin boots. A headscarf embroidered with flowers was wrapped on her head, and a white fox fur robe was draped over her shoulders. She had a graceful figure. Her back was turned to Wenchang and them, and she didn't turn around. There were eyelets on their belts and two bundles, one long, one short, sat on a bench beside them. A discerning person could tell the long one contained a weapon, from the eyelet on their belts, which were clearly meant for carrying weapons. From the straight and uncurved shape of the bundle it must contain a sword, not a sabre.
Three girls sat at another table, one tall, two short. They sat facing the window, but perhaps because the people at the other tables were men with covetous eyes they didn't turn around. Must be a bit scared.
They all wore green, bringing a burst of spring into this quaint little thatched hut. Green headscarves, green tops and pants, and short, green leather jackets, half-open, revealing the inside was leopard skin. Heavens! Unbelievable to see women wearing leopard skin.
Long silk bags lay beside them as well, and horse whips. Girls in the northwest were good riders, so this wasn't strange. What was strange was under their leopard skin jackets were travel bags; this was not usual.
In those days there were two kinds of girls who frequented taverns. One was hired prostitutes. The other was ferocious women who roamed the jianghu. Which is not to say that women from good families didn't go to taverns, but such a tavern would have to have private rooms and have a good reputation. But it was rare to see such a thing in a rustic shop out in the country. Really rare.
There were four girls in this shop, but none of their pretty faces were facing the other customers. A delicate fragrance filled the room, a treat for the nose, but they couldn't feast their eyes on their faces.
Everyone's gaze was drawn to the backs of those girls, except for Wenchang and company. The customers were roaming over the girls with greedy eyes, as if they had never seen a girl before.
The little beggar was loud when he instructed the waiter, his voice startling the three young women. The tall one elbowed the girl beside her, then reached into her robe and took out a small bronze mirror and surreptitiously flashed it behind her, catching sight of the little beggar and his companions. She was very quick and no one noticed her. She put away the mirror and spoke to the girls in a low voice only they could hear. "It's him. We found him. We'll tie him up and go when the time is right. Let him eat first; he must be starving."
The girl on the left spoke in a voice so soft, like a mosquito. "Miss, should we notify…"
"No need," the tall one said. "He can't escape."
Food and drink arrived. Wenchang poured the wine for them. "Let's drink three cups to celebrate our reunion today, and to toast to our friendship. Cheers!"
The little beggar poured the second cup and held it up, smiling. "A toast to wrongdoing. May we be friends forever."
Black Iron Pagoda poured the third cup and raised it. "Toast to friendship. Friends are valuable, morality and justice even more so. May we all cherish it!" His voice was loud; everyone in the room heard him.
Wenchang stuffed two hunks of meat in his mouth and swallowed. "Big brother, I remember what you said."
"If you want a act a fool… We never did finish."
"You two still want to fight?" the little beggar said, laughing.
"Maybe." Wenchang laughed.
"We're evenly matched, but I can tie you up. Haha!" Black Iron Pagoda's laugh shook the roof tiles.
"I'll be waiting for you in the water. Haha! You aquaphobic pond loach." Wenchang laughed loudly as well.
The girl in white heard Wenchang's laugh and jerked her head around to look.
That look went all wrong. Her back was directly to him, so he clearly saw her face. He was startled and his face sank. He lowered his head and said in a low voice, "It's her. Ran into her again. It's really a small world. She's grown up. Very pretty."
He recognized her as the girl he had fought in the street in Fine Horse Village. He recalled how the little beggar had said she might be White Dragongirl, daughter of Four Seas Dragon of Princess Island.
White Dragongirl saw it was Wenchang and her cheeks blushed. She unconsciously dropped her head and smiled and slowly turned around. Her smile contained a lurking affection. From this moment the roots of love were planted between them, which also began to form the dire consequences. This was the prelude to the tragedy at Tiger Head Peak that would unfold in the days to come.
This fleeting glimpse of a beauty with her head lowered, smiling, was ruinous. Wenchang didn't see it, but the four lamaists at the adjacent table sure saw it! The big lamaist in the center was about forty or so, big and fat, his big eyes round and flickering with a queer green light. He was big as a bull, eight spans tall. He glanced a signal at his buddies and stood. "Brothers, have a good time. I'm going to see that lay recluse and have a chat."
"As you wish, brother, haha!" the one on the left said, laughing.
The big lama tidied his clothes and made his way over to the elderly man and the girl's table.
Wenchang whispered to the little beggar, "Brother Xiaoshan, is that guy with the beautiful beard Four Seas Dragon?"
The little beggar had seen White Dragongirl's face. "No, that's Four Seas Dragon's brother-in-law, Yueyang's Carefree Cloud Xun Jianhong. His lightness skill is unmatched and is said to be able to use instant travel magic. His internal force training is much more advanced than Four Seas Dragon, but he never shows his true skill. He gets on well with everyone."
"Is that girl White Dragongirl?"
"Yes, that's White Dragongirl Xia Yuanjun, a headstrong girl. Eh? You know her?"
Wenchang smiled wryly. "I don't know who she is, but we've fought before. he palm strength is mighty. She almost beat me with a single strike."
"If she really did hit you, you'd be done for. The Xia family of Princess Island's consummate Enigmatic Withering Palm is one of the ultimate skills among the martial fraternity. It can melt gold and iron. Incredible! Look! Some fun is brewing. Those dirty monks are lusty and reckless and are about to provoke that thorny flower."
The big lama was all smiles as he went up to Carefree Cloud. He bowed. "Greetings, benefactor. I am Foolish Diamond Thunderbolt."
Carefree Cloud stood and bowed in return. "So it's the master of Prevailing Charity Temple. Pleased to meet you."
Foolish Diamond Thunderbolt sat to the right of White Dragongirl, regardless whether or not she wanted him to. Before he could say anything she moved to another bench, an angry look on her face, her cheeks puffed out as she fumed. "Dirty monk, why don't you sit on the other side? Who invited you to sit here?"
Diamond Thunderbolt laughed. "Where are my manners, excuse me, excuse me! Please, lady benefactor, calm your thunder. It's because I saw your father…"
"You're wrong, great master. This is my sister-in-law's daughter." Carefree Cloud was smiling.
"Oh! Pardon me. May I ask your honorable name, benefactor?"
"My humble surname is Xun, given name Jianhong, style name Bochen."
"Ah. Benefactor Xun…"
Carefree Cloud smiled faintly and cut in, "Great master, a little courtesy, please. This girl is green an inexperienced. You're a monk, but even though you're a lama disciple of Prevailing Charity Temple, you still ought to respect our decent customs and not sit so close to a woman. Am I wrong?"
Diamond Thunderbolt didn't care. He roared with laughter. "I am here to deliver all creatures from torment. I have not renounced the world but come into it for this purpose. Meeting you, benefactor, was bound by karma, therefore I presumed to sit next to the lady. This is also…"
Before he could finish, White Dragongirl snorted and shot her hand out, picking up the tin wine pot and tossing it onto Diamond Thunderbolts' chest. They were too close for him to dodge out of the way. But the lama was pretty incredible. He reached out and grabbed the wine pot and shot to his feet, his eyes rolling. Lady benefactor, you're quite unreasonable…"
Carefree Cloud shot out of his seat as well and said calmly, "Great monk, you've no need to speak harshly. Take it out on me."
The three other lamas pushed back and stood up and strode over. The situation was tense.
The five men at the nearby table stood as well and came forward, smiling as they closed in near the three girls in green. One of them reached into his robe and came out palming a bamboo tube. An invisible fragrant gas wafted over to the three girls in green.
The girls in green shot up and turned at the same time. Woah! What a beautiful girl, pretty as a painting, like she was drawn too lifelike. However, their faces were not so lovely at the moment. Their black eyebrows were scowling, their pretty eyes shooting lightning.
The little beggar and the others stood as well and were about to go school those four lamas when the little beggar saw the faces of the girls in green. He started and hurried over to Wenchang and whispered, "Shit! I forgot something very important. Remember to meet me at the bell tower at the beginning of the third watch, sharp. I have to leave right now."
The whole room was in an uproar. The little beggar didn't wait to see if Wenchang heard him clearly or not, he just grabbed his dog-beating staff and took the opportunity to slink out the front door, and left.
The taller girl in green shot her hand out and smacked the man with the bamboo tube in the head. He stiffened on his feet and fell straight down, looking like a dead dog. The bamboo tube fell to the ground and rolled under the table.
The girl in green stepped on the tube. "Five Rats of Hanzhong, your dog eyes must be blind to dare to use knockout poison gas on me in broad daylight. You all must have a death wish."
Her action made everyone stop in their tracks as they all turned to look at her.
One of the Five Rats of Hanzhong had been felled. The others were struck dumb. Shit! She knocked him down with one slap. Heavens! This was outrageous! One of the others knelt down and felt the fallen man's heart. "He's dead. That shrew is really ruthless."
The four of them spread out and drew their sabres.
The girl in green on the left suddenly whispered, "Shoot! Miss, the young master slipped away."
The taller girl turned and shouted, "After him!" They shot out in a streak of green, like three ghosts, and flitted out of the encirclement, brushed past Wenchang's table, and disappeared out the door like a flash of lightning.
"Catch that dirty bitch!" the four Rats yelled, and gave chase.
Wenchang was angry when he heard the girl in green say the guy had used knockout gas. He cut them off. "Hang on there, fellas. Halt!"
Black Iron Pagoda grabbed a wooden bench and swung it. "Son of a bitch. I'll break their damn legs."
He swung the bench without another word of explanation and a melee ensued.
On the other side, the four lamas laughed wildly and reached out to grab White Dragongirl.
Carefree Cloud laughed and shot both palms out to the left and right. Three smacks reverberated like smashing stones. The four lamas received the palms, grunted, and were knocked back three steps.
White Dragongirl withdrew eight feet and drew her sword from her bag. She was about to attack when Carefree Cloud said, "Yuan, stand aside and watch."
The four lamas roared in unison and shot their eight palms out, surrounding them from all sides.
It was pandemonium as cups and plates and bowls and chopsticks and benches and tables flew.
The four Rats were not weaklings. Their sabres held Wenchang and Black Iron Pagoda in check. The latter two wer using wooden benches as their weapons ferociously swinging them wildly with booming crashes.