We were in plenty of time to get the train to Lanchow where the next tournament we planned on me entering would be held. We’d picked that tournament from several options because we’d be able to catch either this train or another later in the evening to get us there. Master Que bought the tickets, paying for them out of my prize purse, and then purchased a dinner box from refreshment room on the platform along with two bottles of cold tea. I did not speak before the train came.
It arrived on time, the through running express from the national capital to a provincial capital two provinces away. Master Que ushered me into one of the three first class carriages and, after consulting the numbers on our tickets, a private compartment. I closed the door behind us and we stowed our bags in the overhead compartments.
I went to remove my mask but Master Que stopped me. “Keep it on till after we leave Meijin,” he instructed me, naming the next stop. “The point of the mask and the cloak is to obscure your identity by leaving a strong impression in people’s minds. You are a professional gi fighter able to afford extravagances,” he tweaked the sleeve of my new travelling coat, “not a teenage girl running away from home dressed in inexpensive blacks and relying on saved pocket money. When the hue and cry is raised for you, we will be discounted. Now sit down and rest. You should eat but that can wait until after Meijin.”
So we sat. I was next to the window, facing the direction of travel while Master Que sat by the door looking back down the corridor to where we’d come from. When the conductor came through it was Master Que he dealt with when he clipped our tickets and sold two tickets to the late seating of dinner. I looked at the scenery and the reflections of passengers passing up and down the corridor outside our compartment. I didn’t fall asleep but I think I passed into a trance because Master Que roused me when the train pulled into Meijin.
The station was much like the one where we’d gotten on the train, neither of them were junctions and both had yards for the trains used for local services. They’d been built about the same time too so the architecture was much the same. Really, the main difference that I could see was the colour, the roofs of the station back home were red while in Meijin someone had selected blue-slate as the most harmonious colour for the location. A lot of people got off the train and more got on. A couple of groups with luggage followed porters down the corridor outside the compartment. As we were in first class it was all very organized.
When our window cleared the platform as the train left Meijin, Master Que said with some satisfaction, “Good, we can take our masks off now,” and carefully removed his with both hands. I copied his gesture with my own mask and turned it over to look at it while he got their boxes out of his bag. I thought perhaps the blank oval was developing more of a face shape, perhaps with cheek bones. “Time to put it away now,” said Master Que quietly, his own mask already tucked into its lacquered box. “It doesn’t pay to try and guess what it’s going to look like at this point.” He held the newer box of the pair out to me and I carefully placed my mask on the padding inside. He put the lid on the box and tucked the pair of them back into his bag, because as I was still his student he was responsible for my mask. Then he handed me the dinner box and sternly told me to eat.
It was the first of many railway dinner boxes for me and neither the best nor the worst I’ve had but I still remember it. First the towelletes for washing your hands with before eating. There were two so I gave one to Master Que. Then the chopsticks to break apart, but only one pair. I took the plastic lid off my bowl of rice, inverted it and put two chicken skewers, two strips of spiced beef, a piece of picked radish and a sour plum on it before I handed it to Master Que. I kept the rest for myself. Once I started eating I realized just how hungry I was.
Master Que commented acerbically, “You have an interesting way of interpreting an order to eat,” but he ate the food I gave him anyway.
Afterwards I was happy just to sit quietly and watch the scenery roll past. There were four more stops before the second seating of dinner was served and that was enough time for me to get hungry again. At the second stop after Meijin Master Que had to enlist the conductor to quell the aspirations of the woman shepherding her brood into the compartment next to us who thought we wouldn’t mind having a couple of her children in with us. That we had our own private compartment made no difference to her and when the conductor and Master Que had sent her and hers back to their own space I was left with the impression that she always skimped on her tickets then imposed on the good nature of others.
“It is likely,” said Master Que, as he sat down after closing our compartment door again, “that they are a gang of thieves.”
“Thieves, Master?” I was surprised.
“Yes. It’s a time honoured dodge, to get extra people into a compartment on an evening or night train and then wait for the other occupants of the compartment to go to sleep before pilfering their belongings. You did not see, but she’d placed two other children in the compartment beyond the one she has tickets for and the conductor returned those to her as well. I suspect that we will shortly see those children roving up and down the corridor then they will leave the train in two or three stops.” He sipped on the remains of his cold tea. “I realize that you come from a large family but too many of those children are the same age and not enough like her or each other.”
It was as Master Que said. The children from the compartment next door were soon coming and going, always in pairs. We saw several of them returned to their compartment by the conductor, no doubt for being where they shouldn’t be, but they seemed to set out again as soon as he was gone. Interestingly, the children returned to the compartment in a nervous flurry just after we left the next stop. I saw Master Que, leaning back against the seat, smile and asked what had amused him.
“I can hear her through the compartment wall,” he told me, “scolding them for coming back so soon and almost empty handed. I told you they were thieves,” he added.
“How can you hear what they’re saying?” I was surprised because I couldn’t hear anything at all and he seemed to have heard everything.
“It’s a simple trick for a member of our gi school, but not a combat one. I must teach it to you when you are not so tired. Ah,” he cocked his head, “apparently these larcenous chicks have flocked back to their mother hen because the police joined the train at the last station.”
I asked, “Should I put my mask back on?” It didn’t seem likely that the police would be searching for me, particularly so far from home but I thought hiding my face might be sensible.
“No, I think not.” He looked at me critically. “Make sure your coat is covering all of your blacks and curl your feet up underneath it on your seat. If they talk to us, allow me to carry the conversation. Your mind is still half in the gi tournament,” he instructed.
“But Master,” I protested.
He put up a stilling hand, “Yes, I know, you’re not like that but it is all too common among young, would-be professional fighters. On the plus side, if they don’t talk to us, you won’t have to pretend to be a dazed ninny.”
I assumed my position and continued to gaze out the window, not that I could see much of what was outside, the reflections from inside the train were much clearer. I saw the conductor come through checking tickets, then a little behind him were two, large, uniformed provincial policemen. They knocked on our compartment door then, as they opened it, I saw two more officers pass behind them to the compartment with the woman and all the children.
“Officers,” Master Que was being affable, “how may we help you?”
“We have been asked to make a security patrol on the train,” explained one of the officers. “There have been recent thefts. Have you had any problems?”
“Only the woman next door trying to foist two of her children on us,” Master Que told him. “I’m sorry her family is too large for the compartment, but my protégé,” he indicated me, “needs quiet.”
I turned my head and regarded the three men with vague interest.
“An artist?” The broader officer was regarding me with some interest.
“Only in gi,” replied Master Que. “She fought in a tournament today and is still slightly mazed.”
“I’ve heard some fighters are like that,” said the officer. “Will she be alright?”
“She gets better every time,” said Master Que. “I’m sure that by next year it won’t be problem at all.”
Then I ruined the act by diving forward and dragging Master Que down by one arm and casting a shield of shadow between him and the wall. Fortunately I’d been in time and the nasty little darts that came through the wall from the next compartment thudded harmlessly into the shield. “What are they doing in there?” I didn’t sound mazed at all.
The officers were already out of our compartment and going next door. “Stay here,” ordered Master Que. “Put up a shield along the entire wall to protect yourself and the compartments behind us. They may need my help to stop this.” He followed the police and I put my shield up.
There was screaming and shouting. The sound proofing on the first class compartments was excellent so even with the holes made by the darts I couldn’t pick up the details. I felt two more of the shrill tremors of force that had preceded the darts for me, aimed at the doorway this time, and three flat blocks, the fastest and strongest of which would have been Master Que. Then there was a silent phwoom, which felt like Master Que, and next door went quiet. I thought I could hear the sound of a child sobbing.
In a gi tournament the referee puts a warding shield around the ring to prevent energies manipulated by the fighters from harming the audience. It has the side-effect of dulling the perception of the energy’s movements before an attack manifests. With the distances involved in a tournament and a generally unobscured line of sight this dulling of the senses isn’t an issue. The same warding shield goes up around training rooms when older students are practicing. Master Que had shown me what unshielded gi felt like years ago but this was the first time I’d come across a gi fight outside a tournament or the training room.
It took a little while for Master Que to return to our compartment. One of the policemen had already run past in the direction of the conductor’s compartment. He looked ruffled.
“You can drop your shield now,” he told me brusquely. “She’s in restraints and won’t be casting any more of her waijin.” I hadn’t heard the word before and must have looked confused because he explained, “Thieves’ guild tricks founded in sorcery. The old sorcerers looked down on them but as you saw they are most effective.” He paused then added, “If you can work out how to produce that effect, they’re not banned from tournament competition.”
“What happens now, Master?” Then I added, “What happened next door?”
Master Que sat down and answered my questions in reverse order. “The woman attacked the two officers who went into their compartment. One dodged and the other was seriously wounded. I ended the confrontation by restraining her then the officers arrested her and placed her in handcuffs, so I released her from the tentacles. She and the children have been arrested on various charges. We will be making an unscheduled stop at Nanxin for them to be taken off the train and for the injured officer to be taken to hospital.”
“Won’t they need you to go with them and make a statement, Master?” I read novels and newspapers and I watched television. The police always wanted statements from witnesses.
Master Que gave a wave with his hand. “I gave them my card and told them where we are likely to be staying in Lanchow. I will attend the police station there tomorrow and give a statement for transmission to the provincial police here.”
I admit it, I was diverted. “You have cards, Master Que?” My father and some of his associates had cards that they handed out when they wished to make themselves known but I had never seen Master Que with such a thing.
“I am,” he said, assuming an air of dignity, “a person of some importance in my field, child. You have simply never seen me in circumstances where it has been necessary for me to display such social couth.” There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it so I took it as a humorous remark.
“Yes, Master Que.” I said it in a quiet, submissive tone but with a sideways glance at him from my down cast eyes.
It got a laugh from him. “We’ll both feel better after our meal,” he told me. “And Nai, you might have saved my life and you did save me from serious injury. Thank you.”
I ducked my head and mumbled something incoherent.
After the stop at Nanxin, the rest of the trip to Lanchow was uneventful. Both of us did feel better after dinner in the dining car where Master Que accompanied his meal with a brown liquid that was definitely not tea. It was after eleven though when we got off the train at Lanchow’s brightly lit station and I, at least, was looking forward to a bed.
Master Que led me past the taxi rank and into the streets. We walked about four blocks and passed a few people who made me glad that I wasn’t alone to get to the hotel he had in mind. It looked clean and respectable. Master Que dealt with the desk clerk and got us two adjoining rooms.
We went upstairs in the elevator, Master Que saw me into my room and made sure I locked the door. I had a quick shower, dried off and pulled on my night gown. My beautiful new coat was already hanging in the wardrobe and the rest of my clothes were neatly put aside for the next day. I fell into bed and passed into the sleep of the exhausted.