We exchanged some further pleasantries with the Loongs and then we parted company. I took the opportunity to ask Master Que about it. “Why did the police want you to have a look at that place? I would have thought they’d be able to handle illegal betting and pickpockets on their own.” Master Que had given me a talk on the dangers of cage fighting venues before he’d taken me into one.
“The police were concerned that unethical methods of motivating the fighters were in use,” Master Que replied solemnly. “Cages for accommodation as well as fighting in, some old sorcerer’s tricks for controlling people and fight fixing. They were an unpleasant group of people.”
“They sound it,” I agreed. “Did the police arrest them?”
“Some of them, the smaller local fry,” he told me. “I believe the big bosses of that place were careful to never darken the doors themselves. With that and camouflage accounting, they’ve managed to hide the trail between themselves and that little hell hole. The police’s suspicions were entirely correct and I felt positively virtuous, helping to rescue those fighters.”
“Do you have any idea who the big bosses are?” I was intrigued.
“Suspicions but no proof.” He smiled sweetly at me, “Now, let us change the topic to one more suited to the day and being out in public.”
We were discussing the architectural idiosyncrasies of the temple, all right the humorous tags in the dedication inscription they put in because they didn’t put in a deliberate error anywhere else, when we ran into Master Lau and party. The composition of that party had not changed and Bing Lu Ming was negotiating the world in formal robes while wearing crutches. Bing gave me a look that could have been what I’d come to consider his “usual unpleasant self” or it could have been because I’d broken his leg. Regardless, I calmly made my greeting bows with Master Que.
After the usual polite greetings, Master Lau said, “I was thinking, Que, that my boy and your girl might make a match of it.”
I was still working out what he meant when Master Que brusquely replied, “No.”
Master Lau bristled. “Do you think your daughter is too good for my son? Is that it?” His voice got louder as he spoke.
“You are suffering under a misapprehension,” Master Que went on calmly. “Nai is not my daughter and I am in no position to negotiate her marriage. When I introduced her as my student, I meant exactly what I said.”
Master Lau settled himself back into his previous posture. “My apologies. I thought that… There are times when she is very like you.”
“She has trained with me since she was six,” was Master Que’s calm reply. “It’s not surprising that she’s picked up some traits.”
Master Lau turned to me and asked, “So, young lady, if I were to approach your father on my son’s behalf…?”
I found my voice quickly. “That’s a very flattering suggestion, Master Lau, but when I last spoke to my father he was looking to arrange my marriage to the “middle-aged bureaucrat” of my birth prediction.”
“Ah.” Master Lau smiled. “My son would have to change professions and wait twenty years to fit that description. I suspect he would not care for that,” and he cast a sideways glance at Bing that I thought was very odd. Bing, in contrast, was looking slightly happier. Master Que exchanged cards with Master Lau, his fighters and both the ladies, then we spoke together for a few moments more before we parted company, they to go through into the main temple while Master Que and I went outside to hail a taxi.
That turned out to be easier said than done. The number of people arriving made it near impossible to get to the curb to get into one of the empty taxis that had dropped the new arrivals in front of the temple so we decided to walk down the street in the direction the traffic leaving the drop-off zone was going. We were almost a block from the temple entrance before the crowd thinned enough for us to get to the curb and then it was easy to get a taxi, they all wanted a fare to pay for their trip away from the temple.
After a few minutes Master Que commented, “That was an interesting morning, wasn’t it? I thought you handled Master Lau well. It was good that you didn’t speak with Bing, he lacks his father’s veneer of civility as yet and I think he is still unhappy with you. Mind you, I believe he was surprised to see you turned out so well.”
I thought for a moment then asked, “Bing is Master Lau’s son?”
“His natural name is Lau Chun. I do not think you would enjoy being married to him.” Master Que was gazing serenely out the window.
“Given the way he fights, I don’t think so either.” I thought about it, “Thank goodness for my birth prediction, otherwise I don’t think I could have refused to give him my father’s details. Not without being rude.”
“As it is, I believe he may be a little sorry for you.” I saw his smile in Master Lau’s reflection. “I imagine he thinks that such as husband would be rather dull.”
“I can’t see that a man like that would find me interesting enough to be married to. I mean, what would we talk about?”
“Each other, mutual interests, current events, and all the other sorts of things two people can talk about together.”
I admitted in a small voice, “I think I would bore him very quickly. I mean, all I’ve ever done is go to school. Someone twenty, twenty-five years older than me is going to have more informed opinions, and a much wider field of experience. Let’s face it, I’m not pretty enough to hold a husband with my face alone, so if I can’t attract him with my mind, we’re stuffed.”
Master Que turned to look at me directly and said sharply, “Stop borrowing trouble from the future! It seems to me you are far too worried about something that may not happen. I would suggest that kindness and affection are far more likely to help you keep your husband interested in you than beauty.”
“If you say so, Master Que,” I accepted his correction, “But we both know I’m no good at keeping people’s attention.”
“You’ve had no difficulty doing in doing so since we left home,” Master Que observed. “I am confident that you will manage.”
I thought about that for the rest of the trip back to the hotel. One of the things I wondered about was whether I’d become so used to being overlooked at home that I was uncomfortable with my parents’ attention. It would make me at least partly responsible for my troubles with my family and that did make me uncomfortable, I’d much rather continue to blame matters on a scarcity of parental resources, particularly time. If I’d seemed prickly or withdrawn…
“You’re overthinking,” Master Que said as he helped me from the taxi. “I can tell from your face.”
I asked, “Is my relationship with my parents my fault?”
“You were six when we met.” He tucked my arm into his as we walked back into the hotel. “It was the last day of the second week of first term, the last of the days when six year olds take their new gi masters gifts in thanks for being accepted as students, and I saw a child with a packet of biscuits turned away from Master Goh’s stoop. Master Goh,” he added meditatively, “is a good man and his classes are always full, but he lacks boldness and even at that distance, and on my third cup of rotgut, his body language told me that he was worried. I watched as you walked down the street towards my place and I could see one of the things that worried Goh, you were all alone. I know your mother was ill,” he cut me off before I could speak, “I’m sure your father had his hands full, but someone should have been watching you. You shouldn’t have been able to slip out, buy a packet of cheap biscuits with your saved-up pocket money and then go looking for a gi teacher without your household being alarmed. Someone should have arranged a gi teacher for you. Frankly, I was even more surprised when your father just paid my account when I mailed it to him – I’d been expecting him to visit the school when he got it. Whatever is wrong with your relationships with your family, Nai, I cannot believe it is down to you, you were far too young when the problems started.” We’d crossed the lobby and were in front of the lifts by the time he finished speaking.
“Thank you, Master,” I sounded as I felt, subdued.
He patted my arm, “A few hours of practice will cheer you up by reminding you of your own competence, and then there will be fireworks later. I was thinking about the Chifu Gardens for tonight.”
“That’s the place with the cherry blossom snow on the statues in spring, isn’t it?” Truth be told, I was a little disappointed at Master Que’s response, it seemed a little too much like my father.
“The lighting at night during the festival is supposed to make them look like they’re moving,” he replied cheerfully.
“That will be nice.” My answer sounded flat, even to my own ears.
It turned out that Master Que was right. Two and a half hours of going through the basic forms, movements and sets was like a meditation. By the end of the training session I felt centred and myself again. I was sincere when I bowed and thanked Master Que at the end of the session.
“You’re feeling better, then?” He had a twinkle in his eye as he asked me that.
“Yes, Master Que. You were right. I’m sorry if I was difficult.” I was apologetic but not groveling.
“As I’ve said before, I’d be more worried if you didn’t have a few upsets and downs,” he was locking up the training room now, “and it could be argued that a young lady who’s just rejected her first proposal of marriage should be feeling a little introspective.”
“Oh, my,” I said nervously, “I did, didn’t I?”
“Without telling the young man’s father that you wouldn’t marry Bing if he was the last man on earth. I think you can be said to have handled the matter well.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s go get cleaned up, we have a festival to enjoy!”
I wore my yellow and gold geometric festival robe again that afternoon and we went to the Chifu Gardens by tram, a form of travel I hadn’t used before and which struck me as a civilized crossbreed of a bus and a train. Once at the Gardens we arranged to meet up for dinner and went our separate ways. I suspect Master Que went looking for another mah jong game, while I went off to look at the stalls and entertainments.
During the afternoon I ate ices and bean paste cakes, drank tea, had my photograph taken in both colour and black and white, watched a puppet show and bought myself an oiled silk umbrella. The umbrella seemed a silly purchase, but I thought the summer moths painted on it, their dark wings brightened by jewel-like colours, would go well with my multicoloured travelling coat. Besides, I told myself, the summer rains would be starting soon in the north of the country and I might need it, if we went there.
I met Master Que at the appointed time and place to find him a trifle worse for wear and a trifle richer than when I’d last seen him. “I was playing mah jong,” he told me happily, “with a fine set of fellows, none of whom could keep a straight face. The son of one of them came along and accused me of cheating, then there was a little rough housing, but it wasn’t my sleeves the extra tiles fell out of. If you can’t win by cheating then you’re in the wrong game,” he finished piously.
“You got into a fight over a game of mah jong?” I was surprised.
“I wouldn’t call it a fight,” said Master Que judiciously, “although other people might. Besides, only the son got hurt, a little. His father may have been cheating but he was amusing company.” He paused for a moment and added, “Perhaps we should have dinner at the southern end of the Gardens, nowhere near the tea house on the lake."
Which is why we had poached chicken with chilli sauce and garlic rice for dinner in a booth that was almost as far south as you could get and still be in the Gardens. After dinner Master Que was pleased to approve my umbrella. Then we admired the lights strung under the trees along the Grand Promenade before we watched the fireworks from a vantage point that was not, apparently, too close to a certain tea house. Finally, we caught the tram back to the hotel.
We were almost there when Master Que suddenly asked me, “What do you want to do for your birthday?”
“My birthday?” I hadn’t even considered it, it was…just over a month off.
“It will be in the middle of the week this year, so there won’t be a regional tournament on the day. You could have a party. Visit a temple and get your birth prediction, well get a more expansive version of it. Go to dinner and the theatre, but I’d leave going out dancing all night until after the national tournament. You could do all of those things.”
He was right, of course. Seven more tournaments on our schedule, then we’d be in the three weeks of regional tournaments. My birthday and the awarding of final sweep university places. That date was in the middle of all my plans. Even my father’s plan to marry me off revolved around that date.
I sat looking into the future, not sure whether I was looking at an obstacle to hurdle or an opportunity to embrace.