When I read the article underneath the headline its main thrust seemed to be that I’d beaten Hu Xi Lu. He was a Lanchow local, born and bred, who’d won the national open amateur tournament three times before turning professional. I’d heard of him under his own name, Hai Jung, but his professional career and teaching had all been in his home province. When I read through the list of his achievements I could see beating him had been a big deal particularly, as the writer pointed out, I’d been in my second professional tournament. Most of the rest of the article was some speculation about my amateur career which was amusing because I’d never had one.
What I found surprising was the fuss the final paragraph made about me using pure energy. That attack had been a sloppy mistake on my part when I’d planned to do something else entirely. The journalist seemed to think it had been deliberate and a challenge to my future opponents. I was glad not to be getting a reputation for sloppy work but I didn’t like the suggestion that I might be arrogant or setting out to rile people up. When I said that to Master Que he told me we would discuss the matter further on the train.
After we checked out of the hotel we stopped at the bank on the way to the railway station and deposited a portion of my previous day’s winnings. There was a moment when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror after we’d left the bank and I didn’t recognise myself, the coat and the boots made that much difference. There seemed to be something different too about the way I was holding myself but I wasn’t sure what. It didn’t seem important so I didn’t concern myself overly with it.
This time we weren’t even changing provinces for the next tournament. Changzhu was too small for the express trains to stop but it had a regular service from the provincial capital. The train we got wasn’t an all stations service the entire way but the trip was going to take us three hours. Master Que bought us first class tickets again and, given the time of day and the lack of a buffet car, dinner boxes from the refreshment room. The train started from Lanchow so we just had to wait for the car set to be brought into the station before we could board. Once aboard we claimed a compartment, closed the door and hoped that would be enough to repel any other first class ticket holders.
“So, why are you concerned about appearing arrogant or annoying people?” Master Que was facing away from the engine again.
“Because I don’t think I am and I don’t need people putting words in my mouth.” I paused for a moment, and I could feel the expression on my face changing as I was trying to find the right words to explain myself. “I don’t like upsetting people. I suppose I feel…that if I make trouble or I’m not good, my parents won’t love me anymore. That no-one will even like me.” My voice trailed off. “But being good and biddable and not making a fuss never got me attention or all the things my parents assumed they’d given me.”
“You could be satisfied with the implied promise of their attention and you’ve never held them to their implied promises,” Master Que shook his head and smiled. “It’s rather too much like the perfect, classical, filial daughter for my taste. The one who’d secretly starve herself to feed her parents, the trouble being your parents wouldn’t notice and would spread the extra among your siblings instead of eating themselves. Honour them, by all means, but don’t tie yourself in knots to please them.” He paused then went on, “It would not surprise me if your parents come to expect you to care for them in their old age and if you marry in accordance with the version of your natal prediction they have, then you could find yourself a relatively young woman with three elderly people to care for and children at foot.” He made a gesture with his hand and I could almost see a cigarette in his fingers. “For your birthday you should get a better quality interpretation, even if it’s not an auspicious birthday.”
“I should?” I’d never considered doing that. “Am I even allowed to do that? I thought it had to be your parents or grandparents.”
“A convenient fiction of the modern age,” Master Que dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. “There is no reason you shouldn’t gather more information on yourself. You could even get a completely new reading but I don’t think I’d recommend that, too confusing.”
“What more could there be?” I thought my birth prediction was pretty cut and dried.
“Detail,” said Master Que succinctly. “I’ve always thought that ‘middle-aged bureaucrat’ sounded like the quick sound bite and yet there’s something about the phrase that that tugs at my misspent study of the classics.”
“It’ll be something to think on, come my birthday,” I said comfortably.
“Indeed,” Master Que nodded. “So, why aren’t you happy with the move that took out Hu Xi Lu?”
“It was sloppy.” I complained. “That wasn’t what I intended to do. I expect myself to have more control than that.”
“Most people,” commented Master Que wryly, “wish they could throw raw energy around as easily as you do.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“What you did would generally be considered a good thing,” he confirmed. “I’m glad you’re concerned about maintaining control of what you’re throwing around but before you decide to beat yourself up about yesterday, remember that you were on the verge of a concussion at the time. In fact, you should eat your lunch and try to nap for the rest of the trip. It will do you the world of good.”
I did what I was told and ate my lunch, after which I slept. Master Que woke me when we were about ten minutes out of Changzhu so we had time to organize our luggage, get off the train and that was about it. I did feel better for the sleep and not even an encounter with Changzhu’s idiosyncratic traffic on a warm afternoon made me feel worse.
In my opinion everything you may have heard about traffic in Changzhu is true and an example of how not to do it. The road outside the railway station was the main road through the town. It was six lanes wide with traffic flowing in both directions and no lane markings. At times the traffic tried to be seven or eight lanes across, with varying success. Bicycles and pedestrians shared what I thought should be footpaths and the cyclists were ringing their bells all the time. The worst thing part for me though was that there were no pedestrian crossings so anyone who wanted to cross the road strode out into what looked like a gap in the traffic. Naturally everywhere we needed to go in Changzhu was on the other side of that road.
Master Que simply stepped out onto the road and walked straight across, with me scurrying after him, trying to look both ways at once and terrified I’d get left behind and have to do this on my own. I wouldn’t live in Changzhu if you paid me, I’ve since been in cities that haven’t scared me as much as that town did that day.
Our hotel was a small one that catered mainly to business travelers and we seemed to be the only people off the train who went there. We had no difficulty in getting two adjoining rooms and once we’d put our bags in them Master Que ordered me to take another nap before dinner while he went out to hire us a practice room. I took my boots and coat off, lay down on my bed with the window open and fell straight asleep.
I didn’t wake up until Master Que knocked on my door and it was time to clean up before we went out to dinner. Thankfully our hotel was on a corner and the side streets were much quieter than the mess outside the railway station. Master Que picked a restaurant that was too upmarket to have a menu in the window for dinner. It was discreet and dark brown inside with dimmed lighting, which suited me, and only just open for the night. That may have been why we got a table because about half an hour later the well-heeled customers came in like a moving wall. Before that happened we’d ordered and Master Que had told me my parents were looking for me.
It had been in the morning paper. No pictures or even a name but the small inside article said that the parents of a Jingshi girl had approached the police as they were concerned for her safety after she didn’t returned home on Saturday. Although I haven’t named it before now, Jingshi is my home town, and it seemed fairly clear that the article had been talking about me. I had a brief moment of panic when I felt that the police were about to pounce from the expensive woodwork and drag me home, but that was only panic. The guilt was much worse; I was causing trouble and my life had been about not causing trouble. I asked, “Should I call them?” I knew that if I did then this whole adventure was over when it had barely started.
“You left them a note, didn’t you?” Master Que poured me a cup of tea.
“Yes,” I agreed. I left it stuck to the fridge with a magnet. “I told them I was going on a road trip and I’d be in contact in a few months.”
“So you haven’t disappeared without a word,” Master Que poured himself some tea. “On no account should you contact your parents, it would ruin the thought exercise they’re undertaking at the moment.”
I looked at him blankly.
“They’re actually thinking about you,” he explained with a small smile. “No doubt they’re having trouble adjusting to that, so let’s give them time to settle into their new habit.”
Master Que cut off my protest with a wave of his hand. “You shouldn’t be scrunching yourself into the smallest space you can achieve. Your siblings are being encouraged to blossom and you should be too. Your parents just don’t seem to appreciate what your flowering could be. Let them open themselves that there might be possibilities.” He stopped talking as the waiter brought our first course to the table. We ate our way through a duck and pancake dinner that night, washed down with tea. We weren’t at a good table, in fact we were jammed up against the kitchen door, but the food came straight out of the kitchen to the table and the waiter smiled at us. Out of our little safe haven the floor was hectic with the service moving briskly with the waiters moving as if they were steam powered and the senior chefs emerging regularly from the kitchen to break open a beggar’s chicken at the table or finish a dish in flames in front of the customers.
I was pleasantly full when we finished and sipped at the last of my tea while Master Que dealt with the business of paying the bill. We thanked the waiter and went to leave but stood aside at the entrance as another party filled it with the business of coming in. The centre of attention was a sleek man who might have been my father’s age. The gloriously turned out woman on his arm was more the age of my eldest sister. There were three younger men with them, the youngest of them a few years older than me and the oldest in his thirties but only the eldest of them had a dinner companion and she was older than the girl on the older man’s arm. A fifth man hovered in front of them, holding the door open and announcing them to the maitre’d.
Master Que had raised an eyebrow at the little functionary’s announcement of, “Lau Ming and party,” but otherwise his face was impassive. The group continued to block the entrance while they removed their coats and looked for someone to take them. There was someone to do just that, it was that sort of restaurant, but I didn’t like the way the man at the centre of the group and his youngest male companion treated the coat check man or the maitre’d. It was as if they didn’t think they were important enough to talk to or even look at and I didn’t like that. The youngest one noticed me, though, and he smirked in my direction. I did my best not to change my expression.
The oldest man looked over to see what his companion was looking at and recognition flashed across his face. “Que! How good to see you again!” He advanced on my master with open arms. “Are you and your young friend waiting for a table? Come and eat with us!”
Master Que put up a hand. “Thank you, Lau, but my student and I have eaten, paid and are just leaving. If you hug me again I will break your other arm to defend my ribs this time. Nai,” he added to me, “make your bow to Master Lau and his stable.”
I bowed to each of the group in order of age. Master Lau gave me the smallest nod of acknowledgement, the two women smiled and shook their heads, the two older other men bowed in return, and the youngest one ignored me, except for another smirk.
“I take it you are in town for the weekend tournament,” Master Lau smiled at Master Que. “Do you fancy a wager on the outcome if your student meets any of my fighters?”
“Thank you but no,” Master Que smiled right back. “You may recall that I do not bet on such things.”
“That’s right, you always did have some funny ideas.” There was something not so pleasant about Master Lau’s expression now. “I’m sure we’ll see you at the tournament if not before.”
“Certainly,” Master Que bowed. “Don’t let us keep you from your meal. I thoroughly recommend the duck.”
Master Que declined to discuss Master Lau, saying only that he was an unpleasant man but I should be scrupulously polite to him. He added that he knew nothing to the detriment of the three fighters currently in his stable. That was the end of it.
We spent the next three days getting ready for the tournament in the practice room Master Que had hired. Master Lau and his people weren’t among the fighters that frequented the complex we were using but there were six rooms rented out to fighters planning to go in the tournament. The boy training for the open amateur tournament kept himself separate from the rest of us and his grandfather kept us away from him, but otherwise we were commonly polite to each other in passing. I worked on a few refinements and applications of things I already knew. I also got better at dealing with Changzhu’s traffic.
The morning of the tournament we were up early so as to be breakfasted and checked out of our rooms before we went to the tournament, the plan being to be on an evening train to our next destination. When we arrived at the venue we were among the first to register and that was probably why we got a ‘first class’ change room – it had carpet and upholstered chairs. When we emerged, properly dressed for the tournament as well as masked, a lot more fighters had arrived and the junior rounds of the amateur tournament had begun.
When the draw for the open professional tournament was posted, I wasn’t up against any of Master Lau’s fighters in the first round but if we both won our first round matches, I would be facing the youngest one in the second round. My fight was before his and I won, so Master Que and I stayed at the edge of the tournament floor to see what this Bing Lu Ming was like, as a fighter.
Vicious and vindictive pretty much summed him up. It seemed to me that he was fighting not so much to beat his opponent, Chung Man Fu, but to hurt him. Every attack that landed was designed to injure, not to push his opponent out of the circle. Bing knocked his opponent down with a final series of short, jabbing punches to the torso then, standing over Chung, he did a final air slice downwards. It might have been justified if Chung was trying to stand, but he wasn’t and it broke both of Chung’s legs. Bing looked at me and smirked as he did it.
I was certain that it was not just the expression on his mask. I still am.
The rest of the first round had to be fought before the second round could begin and then our match was not the first bout of the round. When I saw Master Lau he was fussing over Bing and even the wins of his other two fighters barely seemed to distract him from the younger man. Bing caught my eye a couple of times and I didn’t care for the looks he gave me at all. I don’t think it was my imagination that the audience around our section of the tournament floor went quiet when Bing and I entered the circle.
I can honestly say that I entered the ring without a plan. Bing was Laosung and so I expected to be reacting to his attack simply because he would be faster, and he was. My response was to generate a shield of darkness a little more than my height in diameter. It blocked his air blast, if I’m any judge it would have felt like knives on my skin, and then, with the flick of my hand I would have used to turn aside an attack I couldn’t actually stop, I used it to bat him out of the ring with one blow. I heard a crack which probably meant that something had broken but Bing was nowhere near as badly hurt as Chung Man Fu had been. I paid my respects to the referee and left the ring.
I was waylaid by my opponent from the first round, Tang Ju Bai, on my way back to Master Que. “What did you just do? Can you do that all the time?” He was a little wide-eyed in a way I thought was odd.
I glanced back over my shoulder to where Bing was being helped onto a stretcher then replied clearly, “I did not care for the way he treated Chung Man Fu. I may have overreacted.”
“Ah.” Tang seemed to calm down a little. “I would be offended if you had not thought me worth using your best efforts on.”
“I didn’t know I could do that until just now,” I admitted candidly. “It was never my intention to offend you.”
Master Que had come up behind Tang. “My student prefers to use precision tools rather than sledgehammers but she does pack one or two of those as well. Perhaps we should all go sit down now?”
The rest of the afternoon went well. Master Lau came and went several times and glared daggers at me anytime he laid eyes on me. He particularly wasn’t happy when I beat his oldest fighter to win the tournament. When I handed the prize purse to Master Que I asked him to give the sum I would normally have banked to Chung Man Fu.
The day ended with Master Que and I catching the night train to Haizhang.