With a judicious choice of trains we didn’t have to change to get from Wuzhang to Kwailong. We did sit for an hour in the station at a place called Zhemung waiting for a guaranteed connection that had been delayed by a medical emergency but I didn’t see that was a major issue on a journey of a little over a day, not when I was already comfortably ensconced in my first class seat and I had almost a week before I had any commitments at my destination. I was rereading Honour Among Horses and laughing, which probably helped. From his writing, Cho Ki believed in humour as a teaching tool and his observations on human nature were very astute.
What I hadn’t realized when I blithely assumed that the hour’s delay at Zhemung wasn’t important was that it’d upset the careful choreography of trains along the line so that instead of having a clear express run we were caught behind all stations local trains and slow goods trains as well as being plunged into the Liching commuter rush. Going through Liching I saw more people crammed into a single train than I’d thought humanly possible and not just once but in almost every train we passed. All in all, we were almost half a day late into Kwailong and we arrived in the middle of an afternoon thunderstorm.
It was still raining heavily when we left the station, by passing the queue of our fellow passengers hoping for a taxi by raising our umbrellas and setting forth with our suitcases. Master Que had hoped that we would stay at a hotel near the station called the Chuen but we arrived to find that it had suffered a catastrophic fire the previous night. They had a concierge outside the safety tape referring their would-be guests to other establishments and we were sent to an establishment called Madam Tu’s House of Respite. The front desk at Madam Tu’s was quite happy to accommodate me but refused Master Que – apparently he’d gotten himself banned from the place by the original Madam Tu when he was a few years older than me and they had a long memory. They were, however, prepared to refer us on to an establishment called the Inn of the Tenth Reflection.
I can only describe the Inn of the Tenth Reflection as ancient. It wasn’t really a hotel, it actually was an old country inn that had had Kwailong expand to surround it. I wondered how it could survive in that form until Master Que asked to see their list of room charges and then told me that he would cover our accommodation there as a birthday gift. Apparently they charged enormously for the privilege of being their guests. We were, however, stuck. With the Chuen unavailable and the regional tournament on we would be lucky to get any other respectable accommodation in town. The Inn of the Tenth Reflection had the added advantages of being within walking distance of the tournament venue and the night quarter, while you could also walk to the town’s main temple from there if you wished. It was practically perfect for our purposes except, apparently, for the price.
Master Que secured one of their two bedroom suites for us which meant that our individual rooms were slightly smaller than the others but that we shared a private dining room parlor between our rooms where our breakfasts and dinners would be served. Otherwise our meals would have been served separately to us in our rooms. When I found out that dinner was included in the cost of a night’s accommodation I began to suspect that the Inn’s prices, although high, might be reasonable for what they provided.
When Master Que went out to secure us a practice room he left me at a table in the foyer overlooking the Inn’s garden going over a local guidebook I’d borrowed from the front desk. I was planning what I wanted to do on my birthday and that little book was very useful, with its list of opening times, locations and so forth. I’d made some notes about the post office and the main temple and was on to reading what it said about the night quarter when someone harrumphed at me.
I looked up to find myself being looked down on by an older lady. She demanded of me, “Why aren’t you working?”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am?” I stood to be polite.
“You’re employed here to clean or something, aren’t you?” I was beginning to recognise her voice and face. She was a famous traditional opera singer who’d appeared in a string of movies performing her stage roles. My mother had taken us to all of her movies. “Well, why are you sitting here, in a guest area, and not doing your job?”
“There seems to be some confusion, Madam Yuen.” I bowed slightly and I think that she was slightly mollified that I knew her by name, “I’m a guest here, not an employee.”
She may have flushed slightly under her makeup but asked, “Then why are you dressed like one?”
“Well, I was expecting to stay at the Chuen but they had an unexpected fire, so we wound up here instead.” I smiled at her. “Unfortunately the front desk didn’t tell me that I shouldn’t wear my everyday blacks around the hotel.” She herself was wearing a rather attractive casual robe in a muted mottle. “But perhaps you could advise me?” I turned the guidebook around to face her. “I’m planning a night out for my eighteenth birthday this week. Would you recommend any of these opera theatres?”
“Of course my dear.” She ran her finger down the page. “The acoustics in the first two are dreadful and the Lantern Street Theatre hasn’t had a decent female lead singer since Madam Bo moved to the National Traditional Opera Company. Unless Lantern Street is putting on something like Po and the Rebellious General that has no major female parts, don’t bother unless you like having your ears insulted.”
“Thank you for your advice, Madam Yuen.” I bowed slightly again.
“That’s quite all right, what is your name, my dear?” I was getting the publicity photo smile now.
“Sung Nai, Madam Yuen. I’m a professional gi fighter, yet to attain a professional name. My mentor is out booking us a training room at the moment or I would introduce you.” I gave her her own smile back.
“You’ll be here for the regional tournament then won’t you?” She cocked her head, “I believe one of the other guests is also here for the tournament. The name Tzu Gian Fu was mentioned.” She looked at me with interest.
“I have had the honour of facing that fighter in a tournament at Kwanzu,” I replied steadily.
“Ah. Well, enough gossip, I must go call a taxi to take me to my appointment,” and with that she swept away, leaving a scent of orchid and a slightly confused me behind her.
After that I remained undisturbed with my guide book until Master Que came back. I did, however, get to see a number of other guests return to the Inn before he put in an appearance. There were two couples: one young pair who held hands and went to the right hand wing of rooms together, and middle-aged couple who simply walked in close together before bowing to each other and going to separate wings of the inn. Another middle aged man wandered in a little later, carrying a satchel, some type of folder, a folding stool and an easel with what I can only describe as practiced ease. He was followed closely by a tall, spare, kindly looking man in religious robes who scooped up the inn’s cat from where it had jumped up on the front desk and began to rub it behind its ears. The plump, orange-spotted creature seemed to be enjoying his attentions.
Master Que arrived at the end of a quick rain storm, surprisingly dry for a man who wasn’t carrying an umbrella. “I’ve got us a practice room in the training school of Master Po Anh. I’ve known Master Po for years and she’s a lovely woman, but don’t say anything to her about your birthday until the day – otherwise she’ll insist on having us to dinner to celebrate and she can’t cook. If we go out to dinner, then we should certainly invite her, as I said she’s a lovely woman and great company, but she cannot cook to save her life.” He sighed and sat down opposite me. “How was your afternoon?”
I smiled at him, “Oh, I met Madam Yuen the opera singer and found out that Tzu Gian Fu is staying here too. I also have some plans laid for my birthday.”
“It sounds like a productive use of your time,” Master Que said approvingly. “You can tell me about it over dinner. Speaking of which, if you have a dinner for your birthday then you should invite Tzu Gian Fu as we’re staying in the same establishment.” I must have looked a little surprised because he added, “It’s one of those arcane little etiquette things you’ll pick up as you go on. If a referee were staying here too, you’d invite them but they’d regretfully refuse.”
Then we went to use the communal baths before dinner, separately of course because the baths were divided into men’s and women’s sections. It seemed to me that all the other female guests were using the baths at the same time, except for Madam Yuen whom I’d seen go out. Having said that, there were four of in the baths: myself; a well-rounded, grandmotherly lady called Hong Sué; young lady only a few years older than myself who introduced herself as Ban, no Deng Rai and blushed; and Tzu Gian Fu who was the only one of us who wore a modesty apron and seemed to have a rather lean physique plus a hairier back than the rest of us, but that was none of my business.
The communal baths were of a type traditional in that part of the country where you got wet with tepid to warm water, soaped up, scrubbed and then sluiced off under more tepid or warm water before climbing into the communal hot water to soak and, in company, talk for a while. Tzu Gian Fu, who had a pleasant alto voice and a wry sense of humour, bounced funny lines off Hong Sué as if they’d known each other for years. In the middle of their banter Deng Rai suddenly burst out, “You’re Mother Hong!”
“Yes, I am,” agreed Hong Sué, turning to her as she answered. “Is that a problem?”
Deng Rai slid down into the water and covered her face with her hands and answered as if she wanted to disappear, “I work for you, in the Fa Heng store, clearing tables and general cleaning.”
“I don’t see a problem with that unless you’re supposed to be at work right now,” replied Hong Sué with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m having a small break myself, after all. What are you doing here?”
“Deng Tao and I are on our honeymoon,” Deng Rai confessed. “A week here was a wedding present from his brother. Our mothers both said that it would have been more practical to give us the money towards a house or an apartment but…”
“Practical isn’t always everything,” agreed Hong Sué. Then she deflected attention to Tzu Gian Fu and myself, asking, “So, what are you two doing here?”
“I’m here for the regional gi tournament,” I admitted.
“As am I,” confirmed Tzu Gian Fu. “So we two are really here for work. Your reasons for being here sound much more relaxing! Have you heard the one about the nun and the shepherd?” A joke followed that my mother would have been shocked to know that I had heard, much less understood enough to laugh at. It was a good lead up to dinner.
Over that meal, which we ate dressed in casual robes supplied by the Inn, Master Que and I regaled each other with tales of our bathing companions and I suppose that he left out as much detail as I did. “The problem with this foreigner,” he told me, speaking of the most unusual male guest in residence, “isn’t that he has no grasp of bath etiquette, but that he seems to blunder in to every idiomatic language trap. He either simply doesn’t understand the nuances of what he’s saying or, worse, someone’s taught him exactly the wrong way to phrase things on purpose. When he asked Deng Tao what his name was, the poor boy didn’t know where to look or what to say. Fortunately, Tseng Mao knows enough of the foreigner’s language from his government work to be able to explain that he’d propositioned the lad, and suggest a better way of putting the question in the future.”
“I can see that being propositioned by a foreigner isn’t what Deng Tao would have expected on his honeymoon in an exclusive inn,” I sipped from my tea and smiled at Master Que over the top of it.
“Is that why he’s here?” Master Que looked amused. “Now I think about it, he was at pains not to say…and why do you say that this is an exclusive inn? Did you go looking at the price list or something? I told you that I’d take care of our tab.”
“Madam Yuen and Mother Hong of Mother Hong’s Soup and Noodle stores are both staying here,” I pointed out. “It’s a fair guess.”
“It is indeed,” he agreed as he attacked his beef, a delicate dish that probably didn’t deserve such vigorous handling. “So, what do you want to do for your birthday?”
“I thought I’d start by getting my birth prediction’s interpretation elaborated on,” I began, “then tidy up my banking, get my mail redirected, practice, have a dinner and perhaps…”
“And perhaps?” Master Que prompted without trying to put words in my mouth.
“I was thinking, perhaps, if we can get tickets,” I hoped that this wasn’t going to be awkward, “a seqing gushi performance. Apparently they have them, all original works, every week on that night at the Chrysanthemum Blaze in Lantern Street,” I finished in a rush.
Master Que sat stock still for a moment and then he laughed. To me the sound of it rolled around the room like thunder. Finally he actually said something, “All the varied delights and diversions offered up by the entertainment industries of this delightful town, legal and illegal, and you would like to attend a poetry reading?” He sobered up and added, “It seems unlikely to lead to the evening’s end I had for my eighteenth birthday – that involved someone’s father having to come down to the police station and bail us out.”
“You don’t have to come,” I offered quietly. “I can go on my own.”
Master Que went all stern on me. “My dear girl, it would be remiss of me indeed to let a newly minted eighteen year old young woman attend an erotic poetry reading on her own. Of course I’m coming. You never know,” he grinned at me, “it might lead to other people having to be bailed out of jail.”
We had two full days in Kwailong before my birthday and, aside from making bookings in preparation for my birthday, I did very little but train and walk from the Inn to our practice room and back again. Breakfast and dinner were both provided by the Inn and served in our parlor, while we took our lunch in a hole-in-the-wall establishment that catered mostly for workers in the small factories near Master Po’s training school. I was able to get an early morning appointment at the main temple for the reinterpretation of my birth prediction and I was happy to supply them with what details I had of it. Frankly I suspected that, given the age of my birth prediction and the amount I was paying to have the initial interpretation elaborated on, the temple in Kwailong was contacting the temple in Jingshi where the prediction was first made, probably by phone or telegram, before I was out the door after making my appointment.
Master Que didn’t tell me where he booked us a table for my birthday dinner but did tell me that he had extended invitations, on my behalf, to both Master Po and Tzu Gian Fu, as well as to the middle-aged couple, Tseng Mao and Hong Sue, and the tall, spare, middle-aged priest who was Father Go Tse. All of them had accepted although, as far as I knew, they had not been invited to come to the Chrysanthemum Blaze with us afterwards. As Master Que was picking up the tab for our rooms at the Inn of the Tenth Reflection and paying for my birthday dinner, I was not expecting an actual wrapped present on my birthday.
I got two at breakfast: one from Master Que, a bracelet; and one from the Inn, a personalized version of their casual guest robe. Both were entirely unexpected and then, when we were leaving the Inn in our formal robes to attend the main temple, I found that the other guests, including the foreigner, were lined up to each give me a small gift. I may have cried, a little. It also explained why Master Que had been hurrying me to get ready to leave.
As we were about to go out the door, Father Go Tse had a piece of advice for me. “Just remember,” he told me, “that although your birth prediction is important, you also have free will and should exercise it. I would remind you of General Wu Man, who spent his life working against the birth prediction ‘He was born to be hung’ and what his actions made of the end to which he came.”
General Wu had been a pattern card of duty and virtue who’d been captured by the enemy while conducting a rearguard action that had allowed the rest of his side’s forces to escape a death trap, and been hung by that enemy for doing his job. There is, as most commentators add, being hung and being hung.
They were certainly ready for us when we reached the temple and we were ushered into a private room with an interpreting priest almost right away. Apparently my money was responsible for getting us seen by a very senior priest indeed from the robes this worthy was wearing. “Miss Sung. Master Que. Please be seated.” He indicated the chairs where the newborn’s parents would normally sit with them and we bowed, then sat. “Your birth prediction is an interesting one, Miss Sung, and I was brought in because the interpretation could be…politically delicate.” Master Que and I looked at each other in surprise then turned our attention back to the priest. “We agree that the correct interpretation is that your happiness will come through your marriage and children, however we believe the time frame speaks of lifetimes beyond this one.”
“Are you saying, sir, that I’ve been reincarnated?” I couldn’t help but think of my father’s birth prediction, but I was fairly sure that I wasn’t a Reincarnated Scholar.
“No, but we believe that you are more than likely going to be, alongside your husband, for well, quite some time.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Then there’s the matter of your husband, this ‘middle-aged public servant.’ Well,” he cleared his throat again, “we interpret this as a man in his middle years in this life but one who has already spent lifetimes in service to the people and the nation.”
Master Que muttered, “Oh, my.”
I couldn’t quite speak, then finally got out, “You’re suggesting that I will likely marry a member of the Solar Court, one of the Solar Emperor’s chief courtiers.”
The priest took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”
This is now followed by A Birthday Celebrated And Some Other Things.