I went home again that night, in fact I was home again in time for dinner. I ate with everyone else, helped clean up, took my turn in the shower and went to bed. Before I climbed into bed I packed a sports bag with what I was going to need and made sure my alarm was going to go off when I wanted it to. Then I slept.
It was bright and early when I bounded down the stairs for breakfast. It wasn’t abnormally early for me if I had a morning gi class but the kitchen was crowded this morning as it was the day of the local gi tournament that bestowed eligibility for entrance to the regional championship upon its winners and most of my siblings were entered. My father is an enthusiastic supporter of endeavors that put the family name on trophies and prizes. “Hey Nai,”that was one of my younger brothers, Tsu, “are you coming to watch?”
“No,” I made it sound regretful. “I have a class this morning.” Father may approve of gi tournaments for children but Master Que does not. I’d never attended a tournament and no-one would be expecting me to today.
I had breakfast, tidied myself up and was out the door with my gym bag before anyone else was out of the kitchen. I was at Master Que’s in plenty of time to get to the tournament for registration.
“You’re sure about this?” He was sitting at his kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and drinking something that was probably tea because the brown fluid in the tea cup was steaming. “Once you fight a professional bout, you can’t try the amateur competition. It’s not too late to change your mind and go in the amateur girls’ age division.”
“Amateurs can only make a living on the circuit if they have a sponsor,” I pointed out. “You told me that yourself. If I want to stay out of reach of my father’s marriage plans then I need to support us. If I fight in the professional open division then I don’t need to prove my age, I’m masked and I’ll be fighting as your student until I’ve earned a name. Effective anonymity.”
“The amateur divisions have a pretty gold trophy,” Master Que pointed out while gesturing with his cigarette.
“The professional open division has a very useful prize purse,” I replied. “Enough to cover the train fare to the next tournament and keep us until it’s over, by which time we should have a second purse.”
“Indeed,” he acknowledged. “Just as long as you realize that this is likely to be as rough as a well-run cage fight.”
This wasn’t a foolish comparison. Master Que had taken me to a number of cage fights. The genre was familiar to me and there are the brutal ones that stop with participant unconsciousness and then there are the vicious ones that keep going after that until the crowd stops cheering. Master Que had shown me just enough of the dark underbelly of our national sport that I knew that wasn’t where I wanted to be.
“Then my greatest risk is broken bones and concussion.” Much worse could happen in some of those cage venues.
“And you have to get your qualification points up,” he pointed out. “You’ll get paid for enough for expenses down to tenth place, but you only get points down to fifth. If you don’t have the points you can’t get into the regionals and the provincials. If you don’t get into the top five in a provincial tournament then you don’t get into the nationals. The amateur route is easier, you’d only have to fight today then not again till the regionals instead of two tourneys a week between now and then.”
“Even if I’m as good as you tell me,” I said slowly, “I still need the practice and the experience against fighters I haven’t seen, particularly if I’m going to be facing any of them all the way to the nationals.”
“Right then,” Master Que tossed the rest of his tea down his throat. “I’ll clean this up and we’ll be off. I’ve arranged for the cleaning lady and her husband to look after the place while I’m away.” Five minutes later we were out the door and on our way. We walked to my first tournament carrying a gym bag each and dressed in plain, cheap black.
I found out the differences between amateur and professional registration much later. That morning we donned our masks as we went along an alley on the side of the venue. My mask was a black porcelain oval with almond shaped eyeholes. Master Que’s mask was also black but it had been remolded into a demon face picked out in gold and silver with a touch of red. The shapes and details on the masks are psychically generated: mine had never been worn before while I was left wondering just what Master Que had done in his professional fighting career.
Master Que presented his credentials, that mask being part of them, introduced me as his student, paid the administration fee and we were ushered through to the professional change rooms. I was registered as ‘Student of Shui Tzu Dan” as that had been his professional name. I was in. Our room had a door that locked from the inside, a concrete floor, a separate toilet and shower, lots of clothes hooks and was, thankfully, clean.
I changed in the ablutions section of the room. When I emerged I was wearing the typical gi student’s dama: thigh length wrap-around jacket with loose, elbow-length sleeves and ankle-length pants held up with a drawstring. Usually there’s a coloured grading belt tied around the waist but under the circumstances I left it off. Because it was a professional bout I wore the flat soled boots, the tabaki, instead of going barefoot. Master Que’s outfit was almost identical, except for the set of champion’s belts he wore around his waist. In this venue, that was power dressing.
I followed him out of the room to the professional common area where the draw would be posted. We weren’t the first ones there but I was the only new mask. There were a couple of fighters whose masks looked as if they should still be under their master’s tutelage but most of the others wore masks that had developed over several years. None of them were as impressive as Master Que’s. Ours were the only two in the room with Hoshun black as the base colour, most of the others being Laosung white, although three were Qianting yellow and one was Chiangshi red. That proportion of the gi styles was roughly what you’d expect and we were only lacking a Taozhu blue.
I was the last and thirty-second registration in the open professional division. I was worried, a lot of us weren’t going to get paid. The elimination draw put me against an experienced white mask in the first round. He had twice my bulk and twice my reach. If we’d been dealing in purely contact combat I would have lost.
You may have seen the pamphlets they print up for foreigners about gi’s ancient roots. Believe maybe half of what they say. Gi in its current form is three generations old. Four generations ago we were a superstition-ridden people ruled by charlatan sorcerers and false reincarnations of former rulers. Just ask the countries who defeated us back then and demanded control of our economy. They’d spent their time concentrating on weapons instead of sanitation and indoor plumbing, defeated us and then went on a cultural rampage, destroying libraries of centuries old texts. You’d think they hadn’t heard of printing presses. My father’s generation and his father’s get very upset about the whole episode. Master Que says, “And then we all began to learn gi.”
Up to puberty gi is about the physical forms and sequences. After that you begin to manipulate energies in attack and defence. The physical side of it builds the basis of the energy manipulation, allowing you to focus and aim. Skill and ability in gi is based on your mastery of the physical aspects and the amount of power you can use. Someone with excellent physical mastery and low power will beat someone with high power and stuff all physical skills. The physical aspects being equal, the person with the higher power level wins. The schools differ in which energies they use and how they manipulate them. At the senior levels of competition the combatants rarely come into physical contact.
I had two advantages: Hoshun is rare, and no-one here had ever fought me before. I was an unknown factor.
My opponent opened with a classic Laosung move that sent a blast of air force straight at my chest. I dropped to the floor and rolled, sending my response of shadow and dust through the floor from my first contact with the ground as well as avoiding his air blast as it dropped to the floor behind me. My next move shifted the surface under his foot while he was dodging my first attack so his counterattack to my first move missed when he was thrown off balance. My third attack, launched while I was coming to my feet, caught him behind the knees but I stood up into the path of his third attack and didn’t quite dodge it. The force of the air blow spun me around but I dropped to one knee to stabilize myself, then rippled the floor under him. That was enough to stagger him out of the ring. I had won my first match and moved on to the second round.
One of the Qianting and the Chiangshi had made it through too. Neither of the other new comers were in the second round.
My second round opponent was another Laosung. She moved like a dancer and I can’t imagine that I had anything like her grace as we faced each other across the ring. Laosung is all about quick movements and seizing the advantage so my opponent moved first. Her attack came through solidly at knee level and deep enough to cover me from midcalf to midthigh. Dropping to the ground wasn’t going to work this time, so I side stepped quickly and stamped. The disruption to the floor flipped across the room almost knocking her off her feet. She recovered well and sent twin blasts of air at me, far enough apart that they were hard to dodge and close enough together that if I did nothing both would hit me. I did a combat roll across the path of the right hand one, missing it by that much, and hitting her with shadow and dust when I first touched the floor then shifting her ground under her as I stood. She saw the second attack coming and jumped to avoid it coming, sending off a whirlwind at her apex. I dodged that but kept the ground under her unstable so she didn’t land on a firm footing. Her balance was superb and she landed better than I hoped for, well enough to try air punching me out of the ring. The short, sharp jabs of air could have done the job so I avoided them by dropping to the ground and returned the compliment with a leg sweep that knocked her feet out from under her with a cloud of shadow and dust. She was trying to stand when I heaved the floor under her and she staggered backwards. She was still staggering when she sent a blast of air at me. I dropped, did a second leg sweep and that sent her out of the ring.
My master’s only comment when I came out of the ring was, “Stop worrying about hurting your opponents. They won’t mind if they hurt you.”
My third match was against another male Laosung and went longer again than my second. His mask was almost birdlike and he made great use of the air to avoid my ground attacks. Dust travels through air as well as it does across the ground though and I sucker punched him while he was acrobatically in midair. I thought for a moment that I’d knocked him out but he was only stunned for a second. That apparently was enough because he stood only to concede the bout. As he left the ring he was gathered up by the attending physician to be checked for concussion. I felt better about that later in the round when the Qianting won by breaking his opponent’s femur.
I wasn’t so happy about it when I realized that the Qianting was my next opponent.
He didn’t fight like a Laosung, of course, and after so many rounds of them I had to expect an entirely different set of moves. His first was to spin a false floor of light under us to separate us from the real floor, limiting my physical attacks by limiting my access to the ground. My response was to weave my own false floor of shadow through his and anchor the bi-powered disc to the ground. His control prevented me from rippling and heaving the floor while mine stopped him from tilting or rotating the disc.
His next move was to blind me and it worked. A blast of light straight to the eyes will do that. His next move would be coherent light and I would be out of the competition. I was already in the points and the prize money but I wanted to do better than this. Besides, a ray of coherent light could do real damage and put me out of for the next few weeks and I couldn’t afford that, so I’d have to be quick. I used my shadow floor. His light floor might just have been just a false floor but my shadow floor could be an extension of me and one of the things I could do with it was tell exactly where he was. I sent up shadow tentacles from the floor to grab his limbs and with his limbs restrained he was severely limited in what he could do. To make doubly sure he couldn’t do a similar trick with the light floor I lifted him up off the ground with the tentacles. The crowd gasped. Then, because it didn’t seem fair to hit him with anything particularly nasty while I had him all tied up, I passed him tentacle to tentacle to the edge of my shadow disk then had the tentacles throw him - away. That got him out of the ring and I was declared the winner.
Master Que had to come and fetch me because I couldn’t see. “That was an interesting solution,” he told me as he guided me to the benches, “though you could have thrown him from the ring once you’d picked him up. That would have been quicker and more dignified for him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, master.” Then I admitted, “I wasn’t sure if I could throw him far enough and in the right direction to get him out of the ring from where I picked him up.”
“You could have,” Master Que assured me, “you could have.”
The doctor checked my sight and declared himself satisfied that I was only temporarily blinded. Indeed, it came back while the bout to decide my opponent in the final was being fought. I would have liked to have seen more of it so I’d have a better idea of what I was facing in the final but I was just glad I wouldn’t have to enter the ring blind. I can’t fight that well blind.
The Chiangshi defeated his Laosung opponent and claimed his respite break to regroup before the final bout.
During the break I found out that I’d almost thrown my Qianting opponent into the audience seating. I also saw pictures of him being manhandled by my tentacles. Master Que had a point about his dignity. In my defence I was doing it by touch, it could have been much worse.
We reconvened at the appointed time. I noticed that the crowd had grown but I assumed that was because this was the final. The Chiangshi and I entered the ring, honoured the referee and each other, then the floor exploded in flames.
As an opening move it had a lot going for it but I snapped a whip of dust across it ring and put it out. As a bonus for me I was able catch my opponent with the end of it. While I dodged his rain of fiery coals I was able to ripple the floor under him, which he seemed to expect but it did keep his attention so the blast of dust I sent at him was a surprise, as were his coals concealed inside it. He tried to close the gap between us and regain the ground he’d lost but I smoothed the ring under his feet so he had a problem with traction - he didn’t have any. I sent another blast of dust at him and he burnt it up, then sent a fire ball at me. I hit the ground and rolled out of the way, rippling the ground towards him. If you have no traction and the ground under you moves then you go sliding, and he had no traction all the way back to the edge of the ring.
He pulled my trick and rolled across the floor but I used a shadow leg sweep on him. He was already down so I couldn’t knock him over but it did roll him over in the direction I wanted a couple of times. He sent another fire ball at me but I dodged the other way this time and didn’t wind up in the middle if his pincer movement. A few more moves and we had each other closer to the edge of the rink than I wanted to be. This time when he sent his attack at me, fist-sized gobbets of fire flying through the air, I dodged forward in a combat roll to wind up looking up at him almost at his feet. In retrospect the expression in his eyes meant he hadn’t expected me to be there.
I didn’t give him time to get used to it. A blast of dust to the chest at almost point blank range and he was out of the ring. I’d won.
I didn’t really take it all in, I went through the awards ceremony in some sort daze. I remember accepting the congratulations of the judges and the prize purse. I remember handing the prize purse over to Master Que for safe keeping, accepting the congratulations of my opponents and thanking them for our bouts. Then Master Que led me away back to the change room where I showered, toweled myself off and put my street clothes back on. Master Que changed while I was in the shower. Normally we would have taken off our masks now as well but there were too many people around for the amateur competition who might recognize me.
We left the venue masked, carrying our bags and with my prize purse snug in Master Que’s pocket to walk to the railway station. It was busy but late afternoon on a weekend busy, not rush hour, particularly in the high-end retail strip on the Boulevard. It was there that Master Que stopped and pointed at a garment in the window. “You need that,” he said simply.
“That” was an expensive, modern interpretation of a traditional lady’s travelling coat, pure silk, parti-coloured with black collar and cuffs. It had an equally decorative price tag. “We can’t afford it,” I said firmly.’’
“Actually, you can,” Master Que.
With that he bundled me into the shop and we bought the coat for me. I walked out wearing it and he was right, I didn’t feel like a child running away from home any more.