It was well after my usual breakfast time when I woke in the morning. In fact, it was an hour after the train we’d planned to get to Hsiang had been due to leave the station. Once I’d realized that I didn’t just get up, I flailed my way out from under the sheets and coverlet in a panic. I rushed through my morning ablutions and was throwing on my blacks when there was a knock at the door. I was decent, if not fully dressed, when I opened it to find Master Que standing outside.
“I’m so sorry,” the words rushed out of my mouth. “Please forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Master Que waved a hand to brush away my words. “Particularly as I let you sleep in – I thought you needed it after yesterday. We’ll get a later train. Also, I took the liberty of buying us suitcases while you were sleeping yesterday afternoon. Now you have your robes to take care of, you can’t continue to live out of just a gym bag.” That was when I noticed the tall case on wheels that stood beside him. “You can pack after you’ve had breakfast.” He looked me up and down, “And you can have breakfast when you’re fully dressed and have something on your feet. Knock on my door when you’re ready. Oh, and you’d better take your suitcase.”
“As you say, Master Que.” I grabbed the suitcase by the handle and pulled it over the threshold to me. “I’ll try not to keep you.”
“Don’t rush yourself too much,” he replied solemnly but with a touch of a twinkle in his eye. “The point was to make sure you had some extra rest. Besides, I’ve already had breakfast.”
We wound up, after I’d had a late breakfast and we’d both had lunch, getting the afternoon train to Lin Bao. We had first class tickets and reservations for the dining car but, although it was an overnight trip to the northern port city, cost and propriety ruled out a berth in the sleeping car. As it was, I slept most of the afternoon away. I woke briefly for a late afternoon snack with tea but didn’t wake properly till it was almost time for dinner. After I washed my face and tidied myself, we had a delicious meal of siew mai with a northern beef and noodle stir fry and fried rice.
Having slept all afternoon I was, of course wide awake, and Master Que broke out a travelling mahjong set he had stowed in his bag. I found our game educational and it certainly reaffirmed my decision to never play against him for money, but I’m afraid that Master Que must have found me an unskilled opponent. We played three games and he won all of them, hardly a surprising result, and then he showed me five different ways to cheat at mahjong, “Not that I ever do,” he assured me gravely. Then he added, “When I take someone’s money from them, it’s entirely a matter of skill.” He laughed and we packed the tiles away before going to supper in the dining car. Later, primed with prawn toast, vegetable rolls, onion pancakes and tea, I fell asleep again.
I woke again in time for the first sitting of breakfast and felt completely normal again. Master Que pronounced himself pleased and, after we arrived in Lin Bao a little before lunch, he allowed me a light practice session in the practice rooms we hired. I came second in the midweek tournament the port city hosted that week but I lost to the winner of the national professional championship from two years ago. It was both a learning experience and good for me.
I also bought myself a copy of Thoughts from the Floating Mountain and started reading.
We remained in the north and I was glad of my butterfly painted umbrella because it seemed to rain for at least part of every day. From Lin Bao we went inland to Xiaoling with its iron mines and foundries. The miners and foundry workers were very enthusiastic about their gi tournaments – it was the first place I fought where the audience threw things into the rink while the tournament was on. The bout before mine in the first round was between Liu Mei Chan and Wang Choi Sum who were both locals in that they came from the north, they’d spent the entire tournament year in the region and both had developed a following of loyal fans. Wang Choi Sum was pelted with tomatoes as he entered the ring, not that they hit him because he spun a shield of wind around himself and let them bounce off. Then he bowed to the tomato throwers, at the correct depth for a formal bow of thanks. He completed his stylish display at the end of the bout, which he won, by collecting the roses thrown to his opponent and presenting them to her. Then the people who’d thrown tomatoes at him cheered. I was confused and when I said as much to Master Que, he shrugged. “They’re people and people can be crazy. As long as they’re not throwing hard objects at you, we’re good.”
I didn’t get to fight Wang Choi Sum as he was eliminated by Tang Loh Kim, whom I beat in the fourth round. I also won the next and final round against Chu Lu Zhu, a veteran Chiangshi, who had a major secondary skill in sledging. I’m afraid my less than subtle winning move was in the nature of a slap in reaction to something he said, right in my ear from fifteen feet away. The Hoshun are not the only school to have a few old non-combat tricks up their sleeve. All Chu Lu Zhu did when I knocked him out of the ring with a single, opened handed move was laugh and say, “Damn it, my mother would have liked you!” Later Master Que invited him to dine with us but he declined as he was seeing two of his ex-wives and their children that evening.
After Xiaoling we went to Pau Tsu, where Master Que made me read a rather embarrassing article discussing the likely field of contestants for the professional national championships. It was useful as it discussed fighters I had never encountered and was likely to if I enjoyed the success we hoped for, but it was embarrassing as it used words like ‘meteoric’ to describe my rise through the rankings and because it seemed to consider the things I did when I slipped up or was tired to be my greatest strengths. When I mentioned that to Master Que he gave me an odd look and said, “We’ll talk about that when your season is over. For now you should make a note of the other fighters they consider to be contenders and read up on their weaknesses and strengths. The regional championships aren’t that far off and that’s where being able to beat them is likely to become important.” He lit up a cigarette and started puffing away in contemplation and as we were on the terrace of another restaurant he was a silent partner in, no-one asked him to put it out.
I finished my second reading of Thoughts on the way to our next stop at Ruxiang where we took the time to visit the waterfalls. Because it was the rainy season, they were at their best and wetting all the viewing areas with their spray. I had my umbrella up, despite the lack of rain, and I stayed far drier than Master Que who had declined both an umbrella and the rubberized capes available from the visitors’ centre. The waterfall viewing was marred or enlivened, depending on your point of view, when two boys about my age decided to get a closer view of the falls by clambering over the railing. They ignored the squeals of the girls they were with and the admonishments of the park attendant who all wanted them to come back over the fencing and abide by the safety signs. The lip of dirt beyond the safety fence was wet, rocky and slippery – everyone except those two fools could see what was going to happen next and people started moving away so that they wouldn’t have to witness the forthcoming inevitable tragedy.
That was when Master Que stepped in and I was reminded that although he had taught me, or encouraged me to learn, everything I knew about gi, he hadn’t taught me everything he knew. The ground under those boys’ feet moved them back to the safety railing and through it, and although I knew how to move them, I’m not sure how Master Que handled the safety railing without hurting them on it and still leaving it intact, but the boys were astonished to find themselves back on the right side of the safety fencing. Then Master Que spoke to them, firmly and at normal speaking volume between draws on his cigarette, for five minutes. As he spoke they got more and more sheepish, and I was glad that I wasn’t the subject of that talk which was about responsibility and adulthood. The girls who were with the boys being admonished became quite sober and I noticed that one family group that hadn’t withdrawn as far as some of the others were encouraging their children to listen. By the time Master Que had finished, the boys made an unprompted apology to the park attendant and to their companions. One of them went so far as to hand a set of car keys over to one of the girls.
After the four of them had trailed off towards the park entrance, Master Que took a final look at the waterfalls and said, “My work here is done. Let’s go back to town so I can remedy the lack of alcohol in my system.” He shook his head and lit up another cigarette. “I’m either too old for this sort of thing or not old enough.” We exchanged formal bows with the park attendant and made our way back to the bus stop that would take us back into town.
That evening we ate in little bar near our hotel. It served bar snacks like grilled chicken or octopus skewers and plates of battered and deep fried vegetables. Master Que sent me off to see a movie with instructions to come back and collect him afterwards, so I went and saw Red Tide at Szechuan at a nearby theatre that was running a classic film festival. By the time I got back to the bar, Master Que was swaying slightly and having a studiously erudite discussion on the Battle of Long Chuen with, from their clothes, a labourer and a scholar. From the little I heard while I settled up Master Que’s tab, the scholar kept referring to General Hue’s account of the battle while Master Que and the labourer kept saying, “But I remember,” or “By my recollection.” I could only suppose that the scholar had been truly obnoxious because I got the impression that both his tablemates were claiming to recall the three hundred years past battle from personal memory.
I extracted Master Que from the conversation playing the dutiful daughter/granddaughter come to take him home. It took formal farewells to both of the other men on my part to achieve and I think Scholar Tung was quite happy until the labourer said his name was Ming Tze. Claiming the most famous name of a Reincarnated Scholar is, of course, quite rude but there was a twinkle in the labourer’s eye when the scholar objected to it that did just make me wonder whether perhaps he hadn’t been making anything up at all…
Later, after I got Master Que back to his room and left him to sort himself out, it made me wonder whether Reincarnated Scholars always declared themselves in each incarnation. It occurred to me that my father’s plans for whichever of my brothers was the Reincarnated Scholar of his birth prediction might not mesh with that worthy’s plans for himself.
Our next stop was Wuxia, and yes I think I heard all the jokes you can make in polite society about the name when we were on our way there. The train from Ruxiang to Wuxia was a single class affair with common bench seating and a luggage car. While Master Que and I were able to secure seats together, most of the carriage was occupied by a group of university undergraduates who were going two stops beyond Wuxia for a course practical component. The wags of the group ran kept up a stream of mainly puns and jokes – including everything they could come up with on wuxia and Wuxia. They weren’t quite as difficult to ignore as the couple who fancied themselves lady killers and concentrated their attentions on me. We endured them until they started pressing me for details of where we were staying in Wuxia and whether I would be free to go out in the evenings. At that point Master Que turned his full attention on them and asked, “Can you afford to sponsor my protégé on the national professional circuit or are you merely wasting her time?” He looked from one confused face to the other and added, “She’s a professional gi fighter and appropriate offers of sponsorship are always of interest. Otherwise…” He smiled, and not nicely. Both boys scurried back to their friends, bowing quickly to us as they went, and we had no more trouble from them for the rest of our trip.
As it happened, that incident and the actual tournament in Wuxia were overshadowed for me by something else entirely. After the tournament Master Que chose a particularly fancy restaurant for dinner, the sort of place where my silk blacks and one of my brocade jackets was appropriate. We were in the lobby waiting to be seated because this was not an establishment in which he had an interest, and Tai Ru Jin walked in. And he spoke to us, or at least to Master Que, although I was introduced. I managed to be polite and respectfully subdued and I did not, for instance, burst out that I’d had a half dressed photo poster of him on the wall of my bedroom for the last two years. I also managed not to ask him for an autograph, gape like a fish or gabble like an idiot.
Then he asked us to eat with him. At his expense.
When Master Que accepted I thought the twinkle in his eye was because he knew how I felt about Tai Ru Jin. By the time we finished our entrees I realized that Tai Ru Jin regarded Master Que much the way I regarded himself so I wasn’t surprised when our host kept steering the conversation back to Master Que’s most memorable bouts, including his national Championship wins and his seven Champion’s bouts against the Solar Emperor. By the end of dinner he had me asking questions too and I think one of the reasons we were getting answers was that Tai Ru Jin was ordering a particularly good grade of booze. In the end it was not only an exciting evening but an educational one and when our host paid the bill, I covered the tip. Then Tai Ru Jin walked us back to our hotel so as to help me steer Master Que who’d become slightly unsteady on his feet once we got outside into the cool night air. It was, all things considered, a wonderful night and I was glad that I never mentioned that poster.
Mind you, as a result of the night’s discussions, I went out and bought a copy of Cho Ki’s Honour Among Horses as well as a copy of Breezes on the Celestial Plain.
We went to An Feng for the last tournament of the regular season before the regional tournaments began. The advantage of An Feng was that it was also the site of the local regional tournament the following weekend. It was quite normal for members of the professional circuit to compete in a regional tournament each weekend that the regionals were on – we are in it for the money, after all. The other thing to keep in mind was that if you had enough points you could compete in any regional tournament but you could only compete in a provincial tournament fed by a regional tournament you’d achieved a qualifying place in. Deciding where to compete in the regionals and then, perhaps, the provincials was a matter where I really needed Master Que’s advice.
As it happened, I won twice in An Feng and secured myself a place in the provincial tournament. In one way, that was part of the pressure off but I still had to keep performing if we didn’t want to live off my savings until the provincials. Master Que spent the day after the first round of regional tournaments going through all the results and making some calculated guesses about who would do what. That resulted in us getting on a train the following morning and making the two and a half day journey to Wuzhang in the south of the continent.
It was an interesting trip, I’d not been to that part of the country before and the landscapes we passed through to get there were mainly new to me. Fortunately the trains we travelled on were air conditioned because part of the route we travelled was undergoing a heat wave. If what we experienced when we changed trains at Huang Central Junction was their typical summer weather, then I have no wish to ever live there. It made me worry about what the weather in Wuzhang would be like but we arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm so I simply raised my trusty butterfly-painted umbrella again and braved the rain.
I didn’t win in Wuzhang, I came third on points and got to watch two former national champions try to annihilate each other. I’d heard that there was bad blood between Go Man Tzu and Tzhu Ling Kwong but I hadn’t realized that it was that bad. The referee kept awarding penalty points at a level that would have ended the bout, if both sides hadn’t been receiving fairly equal numbers of points. In the end Go Man Tzu won but the two of them had gone almost to the point of getting them both disqualified out of the regional tournament. If that had happened I would have been declared the tournament winner, and I wondered if that had come into Master Que’s calculations when he chose this tournament for me to compete in. I wasn’t arguing with third place though, it was certainly in the money positions and it gave me a place in the local provincial tournament, if I chose to take it up.
After another day of analyzing the regional results, Master Que decided that my last regional tournament should be fought in Kwailong. It was about halfway back to An Feng, it had a nice climate at this time of year and it had a well-respected temple. It also had an interesting night quarter. For these reasons and the previous two sets of regional results, Master Que chose the place in which I spent my eighteenth birthday.
This is followed by In Which That Paid For, Is Received and its concurrent piece, Meanwhile, Back in Jingshi.