Spring represents the beginning of a new year!
Spring thaws out the earth and rejuvenates it!
Spring makes the withered trees come back to life, makes the bald poplar and willow branches shoot forth tender buds—a tiny green regeneration.
Spring is a kind of new wish—the year's plans depend on spring!
The spring sun is nice and warm, enough to stir up your dormant heart with ripples of youthful vigor.
The spring sun melts new snow, moistening the parched fields.
Spring kindles love like fire—
Spring stirs ripples of l.u.s.t in the heart—
The spring breeze is far-reaching—
Flowers blossom all over the spring cities—
Onset of spring, end of spring, late spring, spring twilight, spring love, cherished spring, lamentable spring, poetic spring, pitiful spring, spring outings, memories of spring…
The sights of spring vex one till he can't sleep, when will the happy days arrive? Spring rains stain flowers red, “Spring River on a Flower Moon Night”, “Ride the spring breeze to success”, “Spring has come back to the earth”, “Bright, radiant days of spring”…
Ai ai… too much, too intimate, it would take forever to sum it all up. The world really loves dearly “spring”. Autumn and winter, by comparison, get the cold shoulder. After enduring the long, bitter winter, people look forward to the arrival of spring the way people look to the clouds for a rainbow presaging rain during a big drought. And spring lives up to expectations as it quietly arrives—
And so: “the duck is the first to know when the spring water is warm”. When the flocks of ducks fan their wings and light on the ponds and splash around in the water, then you know that spring is here. And you, well then you can doff your fur hat and throw off your old cotton-padded coat! Face the morning sun and stretch your back and proclaim, “What a wonderful spring!”
A young shop a.s.sistant, “Pillar”, propped opened the window sash to let the spring sun shine in.
The hundreds of icicles dangling from the eaves melted in the dazzling sun, drip drip dripping pearls of water—
The saying that “dripping water can pierce a stone” is really true. Never seen it? Just follow the path from the rooftiles to the eaves and down to the ground, where it is littered with tiny pits. This shop must have been around for many years. It was not a big shop, but it had a nice name—”Spring Greetings”. From the sound of it you might not know, is it a tavern or an inn? Or a soybean shop? An oil mill?
In fact, none of those guesses would be wrong. It was all of those things. It sold wine, food, had all the furnishings for guests who wanted to stay the night, and it extracted oil and ground soybeans to make tofu.
Every year when spring arrived, Spring Greetings was bound to profit again. The fur traders came back from beyond the pa.s.s, at least a hundred or so of them, and they all stopped here.
These people brought their newly-skinned animal hides and arranged them here, set them out on racks to dry in the sun and the wind, then they'd beat, rub, sc.r.a.pe, and knead, making them soft. Pack them up, bundle them together, completing their fur preparations…
Don't think this was a simple matter. It took a month or so to complete.
They had products, and their bags held money. They had been hard at work all winter and this month at Spring Greetings they warmed up, these men, a bit loath to move about. All day they ate and drank and idled away their time playing around, and when they had dillydallied enough, they sought the docks.
Spring Greetings had good, aged wine, first-rate food—air-dried chicken, seasoned ham, and game that was hard to come by in other parts. It had it all: deer jerky, frozen rabbit, whoo boy! Heat it up, tear off a strip, and get some aged sorghum liaquor to go with it. No need to mention how good that would taste.
Spring Greetings could not be compared to other small shops. That signboard had been hanging there for nigh on seventy or eighty years.
Mentioning “Spring Greetings” made one think of the shopkeep, Zuo Dahai. Zuo Dahai was nicknamed “Fiery-eyed Diamond”. It was said he used to be a leader of a band of mountain outlaws beyond the pa.s.s who had later reformed, broke up his gang and turned over a new leaf and took root here, opening this shop for business.
Maybe it was because of his former reputation, plus the fact that he was an expert at making money, but in any case ever since he opened the shop, all the way to the present day, the place's business never once let up!
It was no easy feat to be able to do decent business in this impoverished land, which was frozen up with ice and snow for half the year. In the past there had been two other inns, but both closed down because they couldn't compete with Spring Greetings. Now, Spring Greetings outshined all others in this “Ice River Town”. It was honored as the number-one shop, and that was a fair enough t.i.tle.
Ice River Town had no more than a hundred households, about half of them farmers, the other half hunters. On both sides of the vast Ice River were large old-growth forests, filled with birds. But if you wanted to hunt for large bear or more profitable pangolin scales or sable then you had to go outside town and beyond the pa.s.s, which was really close by.
To the north was the ma.s.sive Mount Hua, most of it closed off by ice and snow. Even at midsummer the peaks were still covered with a thick layer of snow. It was an offshoot of Mount Tian, an undulating mountain range, like big long-moustached carp twisted around there for more than a hundred miles!
To the east was the post road leading to the interior. The post road had very deep cart wheel grooves, only suitable for large carts and carriages pulled by postal-relay horses. Other smaller carriages often ran aground in the tracks—what a headache. So it was said that Ice River Town was forever guarded, and the dispositions of its people were like the terrain itself, aloof and standoffish toward outsiders.
On the flip side, the south was the most rich and populous area.
There, crops were grown year-round, millet, spring wheat, and other food grains were all grown there. Every spring and summer, the vast land was always green!
It was warm and sunny here, birds singing and flowers giving off their heady aromas!
This area connected with Ice River Town, but did not belong to Ice River Town. Even the residents of each place were a bit different, as if they lived in separate areas!
This place was called “Pine Ridge” and housed ten-thousand households. It was much wealthier and populous than Ice River Town.
If it wasn't for Pine Rock Road linking the two places, there would be no connection at all between them.
Pine Rock Road was like a long bridge linking the two naturally unequal brother towns together and preserving the only bit of relations between them. Otherwise, given the dispositions of the people in both places, they would have long ago had a falling out.
Ice River Town was the poor older brother, and Pine Ridge was the wealthy younger brother. Though the younger brother had money, the older brother was proud and stubborn and would never ask the younger brother to borrow money. If the younger brother had any feeling for this poor older brother, he ought to take the initiative and look after his older brother, otherwise the older brother would not be a social climber, and the two would not get along.
The morning sun of early spring shone on the green glazed rooftiles of the number-one wealthy and influential family in Pine Ridge, the “Tan” family, yet at the same time it shone on the number-one shop in Ice River Town—Spring Greetings!
The Tan family was the most prosperous in Pine Ridge, and Spring Greetings was the only prosperous business in Ice River Town. The two places were close together, one at one end, the other at the other end, the only thing separating them the rather lavish Pine Rock Road.
Spring Greetings' owner, Fiery-eyed Diamond Zuo Dahai, was the most important person in Ice River Town. Normally, he always looked down on everyone, but he didn't dare offend the influential Tan family, so much so that he took special care not to.
The patriarch of the Tan family was of unknown background and he rarely went out. He had a big home and a large enterprise, and he conducted himself well, it was just that he was something of a loner. Perhaps all rich men were kind of like that. In any case, since he rarely rubbed elbows with other bigwigs, it was difficult to understand him.
Fiery-eyed Diamond Zuo Dahai not only outwardly revered Tan, he admired him deeply! Even though they barely knew each other, Tan thought highly of him, as every year the old rich man would look after Zuo Dahai with a few thousand taels of business.
Zuo Dahai was also in the fur trade, and his furs were not like those other fur traders' who had to go through all kinds of hardships to ship their pelts to the interior to sell them, as he only had to sell to one household—the Tan family.
He needed only the Tan family, in fact just old Master Tan himself, to move his lips and say: buy! And the Tan family steward, Mr. Hu, would take a carriage over and buy up all he had, and when he was about to leave, the shining silver would be handed over and not a tael short!
Not to mention the good deal Zuo Dahai himself got, any fur trader standing close to him would be like a “bald head following the moon”—they would benefit a lot as well.
The reason Zuo Dahai revered Old Master Tan, on the surface seemed to be because of this. No one knew if that was really the case, only the man himself knew!
Spring Greetings had taken on a new look inside and out in order to welcome the fur traders coming in from beyond the pa.s.s.
There were a dozen tables in the downstairs dining room, all wiped down and cleaned. Five or six a.s.sistants were busy going back and forth, wiping down the oven with a chicken feather brush to clean off the rancid grease. Manager Zuo smoked a long-stem pipe, a corner of his kidskin fur-lined gown tucked in his belt, revealing his silk trousers tied at the leg. He walked around, giving instructions.
He was in his fifties and still looked hale and hearty, no wrinkles on his face, and his voice was frighteningly loud. When he gave a long, hacking cough, you could hear it clearly from a hundred feet away.
Word came from the town gates that the first horse cart had entered the pa.s.s. An a.s.sistant, Guo Shun, came running in covered in sweat and out of breath, coming in so fast he tripped over the threshold and fell flat on his face.
Zuo Dahai frowned. “What's all this? The year is not over, so what are you doing?”
Guo Shun got up, his face red. “Manager, carts are coming! Seven big carts in all, more people than before!” Not only was he happy, the a.s.sistant manager at the counter, Xu Li, the accountant, Pocky w.a.n.g, and the gorgeously-dressed manager's wife, “Black Hornet” Hua Sigu, along with six or seven a.s.sistants, all ran out of Spring Greetings.
With the ice only just melted and the air cold, especially the frigid air blown up from Ice River, the cold cut like a knife or a pair of scissors, yet everyone was grinning.
The creaks of cart wheels came from the post road, kicking up spring mud, and the ice crystals in the wheel channels became two large water ditches, splashing water up high as the cart wheels pressed over them.
The driver cracked his big whip, louder than a string of firecrackers.
And why not, there were seven large carts trundling westward, closing in like a long snake! There were only a few scattered white clouds in the deep blue sky. The sun was not hot but warm, just enough to melt the ice. The men were stamping their feet, hoping to drive the last trace of cold from their bodies! A few black eagles circled the sky, crying out nonstop, as if it were a special welcoming.
All household doors in Ice River Town opened and they all came out, shop a.s.sistants, young women, wives, old men and women, all of them come as if in welcome, faces wreathed in smiles, the annual greeting of this group of traveling traders!
Some among the fur traders were their old friends.
These wealthy friends were all willing to spend money, be it a bowl of “Old No.2” clear sorghum liquor or a fur coat, or a case of face powder or rouge, as far as the people of Ice River Town were concerned they were all great gifts.
Naturally, love was in the air as well. Young ladies who had held firm through the bitter winter could once again see their sweethearts. Those ostentatious, unconstrained fur traders invariably seemed heroic and spirited, far better by comparison to the local young men.
The large carts wended their way closer—
The driver of the first cart, “Ol' Jacka.s.s”, was best at wielding the whip. He snapped it out in a figure eight, two sharp cracks that could be heard for two miles!
The cart arrived and Ol' Jacka.s.s leapt down smartly, the first one off. Look at him, fur coat open, bearded mouth grinning as he went up to Manager Zuo with his hand cupped over his fist in greeting.
“Greetings, Manager… I've brought you some business!”
“Thank you, thank you!” They clasped both hands together, and in Ol' Jacka.s.s' palm was a big silver ingot worth ten taels.
An old custom, an understanding between them. If the giver did not mind, then the receiver even more so!
Right after the second cart arrived, the third… until all seven carts had stopped.
According to precedent, every cart for Zuo Dahai meant profits for them, so all the drivers were so happy they couldn't stop grinning as they set about unloading their cargo. Sixty to seventy a.s.sistants jumped down from the seven carts, every one of them in high spirits.
The townspeople crowded around, calling to one another at all the goods. This was the liveliest time of year for Ice River Town.
Zuo Dahai personally oversaw the trade, greeting everyone he knew, and he was even friendly to those he did not know.
By the time the travelers entered the shop every one of them, and the donkeys and horses were put up, it was already past noon.
With the bustle just starting up, the boss' wife, Hua Sigu, headed to the kitchen herself and killed chickens and sheep with the help of seven or eight big lads, and they got to work, Sigu giving instructions. She knew the tastes of this group of traders very well, and every dish that came out was met with high praise.
In the dining room, Zuo Dahai held a bowl of “Old No.2” in both hands and went around to each table offering toasts.
The man wearing the ermine coat inside out was Ge Xuesong, undoubtedly the leader of the company.
He was around thirty-two or thirty-three but still a bachelor, big and tall and said to be quite the martial artist. The others called him “The Next Lü Bu”. He was a bold lad with plenty of vigor, and though he was still young he had already ama.s.sed quite the fortune.
Zuo Dahai favored him exceptionally well.
He clapped him on the shoulder and gave a hearty laugh. “Excellent, Brother, you're really something! Men are men and business is business. Come, drink with me. Your big brother here will act as matchmaker. Whatever girl you like, brother, just say the word!”
Then he craned is neck back and downed the whole bowl of liquor.
“The Next Lü Bu” Ge Xuesong laughed heartily and drained his bowl of Old No.2 as well till there was not a drop remaining.
“Brother!” Zuo Dahai said, getting back on topic. “You're not a young man anymore—forget a son, you're late with the grandkids!”
“Elder Brother Zuo, you're making fun of me!” This ordinary matter was enough to make Ge Xuesong's bushy eyebrows scrunch together.
He forced a smile and said uncomfortably, “You can't just get married by drawing lots with a matchmaker, and I am so busy going here and there, it will just have to wait.”
“Don't tell me out of all of Ice River Town and Pine Ridge there isn't a girl you like, Brother? Just what sort of girl are you looking for?”
“I—” Ge Xuesong held his tongue and smiled. He was a handsome lad, especially his teeth, each like a kernel of white corn, neat and straight.
“Let's not talk about that—”
“Alright!” Zuo Dahai changed the subject. “How was business this trip? Pretty good, right?”
One of his buddies sitting down—”Black Tiger” Tao Hong, roared with laughter. “Fine indeed! All things considered, it wasn't all for nothing. There's thirty or more pelts of just bear, not to mention everything else!”
“Wonderful!” Zuo Dahai laughed. “I really have to congratulate you all!”
“Black Tiger” Tao Hong pointed to Ge Xuesong. “Manager, you ought to congratulate our leader here. That White Archfiend who runs amok on Snowy Mountain was felled this time by our leader's own hand!”
Zuo Dahai recoiled in surprise, he couldn't contain his delight. “Really? You got the pelt?”
“White Archfiend” was a well-known, enormous white bear that had been haunting Snowy Mountain for years. The local residents, livestock, and crops had been harmed severely, and for the past few years a reward had been offered, and the government had sent people to hunt it, but it had killed more than a dozen hunters. No hunter had been known to even be able to get close to White Archfiend, so suddenly hearing that it was now dead and killed by “The Next Lü Bu” Ge Xuesong, was both a surprise and a delight.
“The Next Lü Bu” Ge Xuesong nodded happily and chuckled. “I was just lucky, that's all. Serves that d.a.m.n beast right, it deserved to die!”
“This is a joyous occasion, Brother, don't you realize?” Zuo Dahai stared at him wide-eyed. “If that really is White Archfiend, not only is the reward from Liangzhou prefecture a thousand taels of silver, but the pelt alone will bring five thousand taels!”
“Is that so?” Ge Xuesong gave a sideward glance and laughed. “Then I heard wrong. I heard someone was willing to pay ten-thousand taels!”
Zuo Dahai was taken aback. “Who'd you hear say that?”
“What's the difference!” Ge Xuesong took a drink and said slowly, “At any rate, I'm in no hurry to sell.”
“Fiery-eyed Diamond” Zuo Dahai laughed. “Yes yes—If you've got a pig's head, why fear not being able to find the temple doors?”
His laugh was rather forced. Just as he was getting annoyed, the a.s.sistant, “Pillar” from outside called out, “A guest is coming—”
Zuo Dahai was caught off-guard. “More guests? Impossible!” Everyone else was dumbfounded as well because their group of carts was the only one outside the pa.s.s; there was no way there would be a second group. On that long, desolate road it was simply impossible to travel alone, unless it was a local, and even then a local traveler wouldn't have to put up at an inn, right?
Zuo Dahai couldn't help but run out with a.s.sistant Manager Xu Li and Accountant Pocky w.a.n.g to welcome the guest.
It was dusk, and sure enough there was someone coming. Not in a carriage, but on a horse!
The person was all alone with a long, thin purple robe draped over him, and a winter cap of the same color on his head. Wind rustled his robe, and in the distance he really cut a dashing figure, yet there was also an air of humble melancholy about him.
The guest rode a thin, long-haired horse that was all black. It looked to be in the same poor state as its rider.
The lingering light of the setting sun shone on horse and rider and in a few blinks of the eye they were before the shop entrance.
Hooves kicked up snow and mud, the rider's robe flapping in the wind as he slowed his mount and trotted straight for Spring Greetings.
a.s.sistant Manager Xu Li was with Zuo Dahai and had seen it all clearly himself. He couldn't help but praise, “What a dashing figure!”
Zuo Dahai seemed unusually concerned. “You mean this person came from outside the pa.s.s?”
Xu Li squinted. “Must have—”
Xu Li stepped forward and reached out to grab the black horse's bridle bit ring, but he never imagined this thin horse would be so capable. It saw he was about to move him and it suddenly raised its forehoofs and neighed and opened its mouth to bite his hand.
Xu Li of course was not about to get bit, but it gave him a good fright.
“Son of a—” he cried out, and he reached around the horse's neck and smacked it.
That smack made the horse pull back and set its hooves down, snorting and huffing.
The rider laughed. “It's fine, I've got him.”
He got down from the horse, and now Xu Li noticed he was wearing sky blue satin thin-soled shoes, and they had not a speck of mud on them.
In fact, his entire garb, including his long, collared, purple robe, was spotless!
It was not often one saw such a neat freak in this small place.
The purple-clad guest led his horse with one hand to the shop entrance and Zuo Dahai cupped a hand over his fist and said, “Brother Zuo Dahai!
Now the three of them got a good look at the guest. He was around thirty with a fair face and long, elegant brows, deep and clear eyes. The air of an affable scholar about him. Though he had journeyed a long distance, he didn't seem like a man of the jianghu, and he didn't look to be fatigued from travel.
His baggage roll was still on his horse, wrapped with green waterproof silk.
He nodded, smiling, when Zuo Dahai stated his name. “I've long heard of Manager Zuo. You flatter me!”
“What is your honorable name, traveler?”
“Ah! My surname is Sang, like mulberry tree, that Sang.”
“Have you come from beyond the pa.s.s, Mr. Sang? Make a killng out there?”
The guest nodded. “Yes, I've come from outside the pa.s.s. I'm in the fur trade, but I don't know about making a killing!”
Zuo Dahai and Xu Li couldn't help but look him over again at hearing he was in the fur trade. There was no question about it, they had never seen this unfamiliar face before.
Zuo Dahai seemed curious as he looked again at the man's baggage. It was just a bag roll and a long rectangular bag made of leather, how much could they really hold?
The horse was led to the trough.
The guest was led inside.
This guest named Sang probably never expected there to be so many people inside. He took an astonished glance around and took a chair in the corner.
Everyone's eyes couldn't help but give him the once over.
A lone traveler not carrying any pelts, Zuo Dahai found that a bit odd, but he didn't pay it much mind. Besides, there were still a lot of guests that needed to be waited on!
Sang removed his long purple coat. Underneath he wore a black robe. It was too early in the year to be wearing something that thin.
He doffed his winter cap, revealing long hair tied up in a thick, short braid like a ponytail, loose at the end. It hung down over his left shoulder and made him look quite handsome and charming.
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He must have caught a cold on the road, for the blue silk ribbon he wore on his head, three fingers wide from his forehead to the roots of his hair in back, contrasted with his slightly emaciated face. He really did look to be a bit under the weather.
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