Part of a Peony’s Tavern translation project at fruitydeer.com.
Do not download, copy, or redistribute without permission.
Source: 芍藥客棧 by Yi Mei Tong Qian // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
To help with visualization: A tavern in the olden days usually consisted of a dining area and counter downstairs along with a center courtyard and back kitchen. The guest rooms were upstairs, bordering the perimeter with an open-air hallway that overlooked the courtyard. I’ve added some reference images below, but I’d imagine that Tong Fu Tavern is much smaller and quainter.
Also, even though there were “deluxe rooms” (termed 天字號 // tian zi hao), these rooms aren’t actually very fancy by moderns standards. They would come with a single bed (as opposed to shared hostel-type rooms) and perhaps some basic furniture. The more significant difference was actually in the service. There are waitstaff that go by “Little Two” (小二 // xiao er) and behave like waiters and/or assistants. I’ve translated the term as hostess. They take care of all guest needs, paying particular attention to those staying in deluxe rooms—especially those of status. Here’s how male waitstaff at a smaller establishment might dress.
One shi chen later…1
Shao Zi collapsed on the table in exhaustion, crying miserably, “I’m a ghost, ah…a ghost! Can’t you lift your eyes and spare a glance at me? Even if you pretend to get scared, that would be okay, too. Don’t demoralize others so much.”
Shao Zi seemed to see the ends of his lips purse upwards imperceptibly; there was a slight outline of a curve. Clearly, he was holding in laughter! Shao Zi tilted her head. The rouge and powder on her face had been washed away by tears, leaving a colorful complexion as she peered at him. “Dumb Scholar, you can see me, can’t you?”
After a moment of stupor, he calmly turned over another page in the book. The corners of his mouth were void of laughter. Shao Zi scratched her head. Is it possible that it was an illusion?
The scaring tactic failed. Shao Zi sat cross-legged in the yard and everyone gathered in a circle, their eyebrows pinched in thought as they brainstormed ideas. Lady Xin suddenly clasped her hands: “That’s not right ah, Grandpa already went back to his home town. If we scare him off, won’t there be no one to watch over this tavern?”
The words awakened her from a trance, and Shao Zi became depressed again.
Thinking about getting tortured by the scholar for eighty years, the demons also became depressed.
“No!” Shao Zi stood up zealously. A breeze passed through and her sleeves fluttered, beautiful enough to leave others disoriented. Punching her fist to her palm, she said with determination, “I’m going to safeguard this tavern for Grandpa!”
“Lao da, haven’t you always been safeguarding it?”
“This time is different. In the past, when little demons and creatures came to mess around, I would go over in the middle of the night and kick them out, but I couldn’t be of help during the daytime. Look at that dumb scholar who only comes and waters at high noon. He’s really too unreliable. The tavern’s grand reopening tomorrow is guaranteed to be a mess.”
The fat bottle gourd asked: “Lao da, what do you want to do?”
Shao Zi made two “heh heh” noises and took a step forward. When her foot contacted the ground, she was already a pretty maiden, free of makeup. She wore simple white clothing, her hair coiled back in a relaxed bun, looking like a maiden-next-door: “I’m going to apply to be a hostess!”
Lao da, are you sure you’re not going over to stir up trouble…
When the sun was as high as three bamboo poles,2 Shao Zi had nearly become a sun-dried peony as she stood at the front doors. She still hadn’t seen the scholar open the doors. She fanned her sleeves, driving away the surge of violent heat that blanketed the air around her. She waited another half shi chen, nearly running into the scholar’s room to smear mud all over his face. Sitting on the stone steps in front of the doors, she was so overcome with boredom that she became immersed with drawing circles on the ground.
The bright sunshine was suddenly blocked by someone. When she raised her head and looked up, she saw that a person standing with their back against the sun and gulped. It was that dumb scholar. Why was he coming towards the front door? Did he not come back at all last night? But how come she hadn’t detected that he left?
Shao Zi’s face nearly crinkled into a ball, this bugger didn’t watch over the tavern on his first night! What if bandits came in and stole things? Indeed, unreliable.
The scholar smiled: “Is the maiden here for accommodation or to eat? Or just here to rest?”
Shao Zi brushed off her bottom and stood up, correcting him: “Tavern lingo should be, ‘Spending a night or stopping for a meal?’ Otherwise, people will bully you for being an amateur and then eat without paying, running off halfway through. Also, I’m here to apply to be a hostess.”
After speaking, she waved a red paper that was concealed in her hand.3
The scholar asked with a chuckle: “Do you eat much?”
Shao Zi gave it some thought: “Not much, one bowl a meal.”
The scholar nodded cheerfully: “Alright, then it’s you.”
Shao Zi was dumbstruck, it was that easy? Then what was the point of her spending all of last night memorizing the rules of the tavern? Why did she specially go to Azalea jie-jie4 to learn all these cooking skills, ya! This scholar was too outrageous. Shao Zi became even more irate.
After opening the tavern’s front doors, the scholar simply sat in the innkeeper’s spot, picking up a book to read. Shao Zi stood for a moment, asking: “Is today not the grand opening?”
The scholar nodded: “Aren’t we already open?”
The corner of Shao Zi’s mouth twitched: “…You aren’t going to light some firecrackers or invite some lion dancers to celebrate?”
The scholar rubbed his chin and shook his head: “That’s too much trouble.”
Shao Zi felt utterly hopeless. Not only was he a dumb scholar, he was also a lazy scholar. Her hands discreetly rolled into fists. She really did have to safeguard this tavern after all!
“Oh, right, I still don’t know the maiden’s name.”
“Call me Shao Zi.”
The scholar gave a slight smile: “A good name.”
Even after the doors opened for half a day, no one had come. Because the cook was the old innkeeper, the old customers, who saw that the old innkeeper was gone with a young man in his place, knew that the tavern was no longer like the original and the food naturally wouldn’t have its original taste. They would then quickly leave.
Shao Zi sprawled on the table in dismay and dozed off. The old days were still better. Even though there wasn’t a full house, at least there were still customers.
Dazedly hearing someone enter the tavern, she took a whiff with her nose and practically leaped up. A piece of clothing instantly tumbled off of her. This chang-shan5 was a man’s. She sniffed again and couldn’t help but knit her brows. When did that scholar put a cloak over her? How come she didn’t feel it at all…she could not keep herself from pondering more, and when she came to her senses and looked outside, she saw a young woman walk in with lithe footsteps. She said in a low voice: “Are there still empty rooms?”
The scholar smiled: “There are. Shao Zi, take the customer to the deluxe suite.”
Shao Zi took pause, then said: “Miss, please follow me.”
The woman sounded a low “mn” in acknowledgment and followed her upstairs into the deluxe suite. Looking at the cold and gloomy aura filling the room, Shao Zi retreated, then pensively returned to the yard.
As soon as she entered, Lady Xin transformed and landed on the ground. A bright red robe dragged across. Her makeup was heavy but not tacky and she was full of charm. When she opened her mouth, she spoke with much seriousness: “It seems that demon-like energy entered the tavern just now.”
Shao Zi replied: “It’s just a ghostess, nothing worth being scared over.”
As a flower demon with three hundred years of cultivation and on top of that, being a peony flower fairy, the purity of her aura was unlike that of ordinary plant demons. With that inherent cultivation and her high level of perception, even with only three hundred years worth, her cultivation was more akin to seven to eight hundred years worth of spiritual power. Ordinary little demons couldn’t do much to her. As long as she didn’t turn into a crooked sapling, ascending to immortality in the future would not be a difficult endeavor.
Hearing this, Lady Xin touched her palms meaningfully: “A ghostess, ah…this time, lao da can’t use old methods.”
Shao Zi’s mouth twitched: “Hmph!”
After observing for just a few days, Shao Zi realized that the female ghost was quite peaceful. She went out occasionally and didn’t eat when she came back. That scholar didn’t even inquire, either. Shao Zi’s aura was dark; he should have asked the customer long ago if she wanted anything to eat, okay?
Shao Zi felt that the grievances she’s accumulated towards the scholar would continue to increase…Sooner or later, she wouldn’t be able to keep herself from thinking of a way to drive him out…
Because a female ghost entered the tavern, Shao Zi was a little restless. On this day, she went before the ghost’s room, joined her hands and intertwined her fingers slightly, quietly chanting a spell. The corridor was instantly covered in a dim, white light. With this, Shao Zi patted her hands in satisfaction: “You best maintain your stay obediently. If hostile energy comes out, just wait and an inescapable net will catch you.”
A few days passed like this, with customers coming in every now and then. For the most part, Shao Zi would cook. Sometimes, she would drag the skilled Azalea into the kitchen to cook. Gradually, there were some return customers, which reassured Shao Zi considerably.
In the evening, she prepared to return to the backyard after tidying up the rooms. When passing the deluxe suite, something seemed wrong. She stuck her ear against the wall. There wasn’t a single bit of a female ghost’s scent inside. From behind, the ghostly energy was chilling and so cold that she shivered for a moment. Leaning on the railing and looking upwards, she saw that above the tavern was full of hostile energy and a screen of dark clouds. The negative energy was incredibly dense.
Shao Zi quickly turned around, crouching over and pressing her hands to the floor. She was startled. How did someone break the inescapable net she laid? Raising her fingers and brushing it across the sky, she found that the formation had been broken. Its source came from the end of the corridor, where there came a faint odor of dried chicken’s blood.
The door to the room creaked open, and in the scholar’s hand was a naked chicken. He looked left and right, saw Shao Zi, then smiled while saying: “How great that you’re here. This chicken isn’t cooked through, the flesh is still raw. Can you heat it up for me?”
Shao Zi was completely flustered: “Heat, your uncle!”6
Translator’s Note: It might sound kind of silly or hubristic that Shao Zi is calling her spell an inescapable net, but the name of it directly quotes an idiom that means “inescapable net” and literally translates as “heaven and earth net.”
Also, below is an example of what a so-called “wine banner” might look like. They’re typically flags outside a business advertising what is for sale. The character for wine is “酒.”
- One shi chen is two modern hours.
- 日晒三杆 // Ri Shai San Gan: Figure of speech. When the sun is high and time is late. Can be used to describe people who wake up really late.
- I’m assuming that it was some sort of help wanted flyer.
- 姐姐 // Jie Jie: Older sister.
- 長衫 // Chang Shan: A type of long tunic worn in ancient times, typically with the mandarin collar. See: Ip Man.
- It’s common to say “[repeat word] your [relative]!” or “[repeat word] your [bodily organ]!” as a comeback or pseudo-expletive. Like a “your mom” insult.