Indeed my second round opponent, Cao Liu Ho, was a fellow Hoshun and well aware of the tricks I could pull on him. He was also very, very good and fighting him was like fighting Master Que in practice, but not – if that makes sense. I did win but I did so when I slipped and fell on the ball bearing-sized shadow balls he sent rolling across the floor and the resulting thudding of my backside on the floor turned my attack into an olive-sludge coloured whip of energy that lashed across the ring, took out his shadow shield and sent him stumbling backwards out of the ring. I tried to apologise when I offered him a hand to help him to his feet and got the distinct impression that he was raising his eyebrows at me behind his mask. “My dear,” and I can only describe his voice as elegant, which was a great contrast to his monkey-like mask, “never apologise for a legitimate move. Especially if it’s the result of something your opponent did to you.” Then he let me help him up.After we bowed to each other and the judge, Cao Liu Ho said something to Master Que and bowed to him as well before he went off to his change room to shower and change. I sat down next to Master Que to watch the rest of the round because, if all went well, I had another nine rounds in front of me.
My next two bouts were against Taozhu. The first, Liu Cho Sung, used water the way a ribbon dancer uses ribbons and I’m quite sure that those ribbon edges were sharp. I managed to disrupt her ribbons of water with a stream of mixed dust and shadow balls and then take control of the reformed ribbons by virtue of the dust that had contaminated the water. After I’d tied her up with her own ribbons it was easy to bundle her out of the ring. The second of them was Yang Dao Ming and his specialty seemed to be power attacks which, in his case, meant streams and walls of water being thrown at his opponent. Despite my shields he was able to push me to the edge of the ring before I could deal effectively with him. All that saved me was that I remembered to step forward every time I attacked or defended, otherwise he would have had me over the line on his third attack. I used my shadow darts on him and it was his own footwork to avoid their solidity that sent him over the line, that and a trip bar of shadow I put behind him.
My next opponent was a Laosung and Gi Quong Yu was, in fact, the second opponent I had ever faced in a professional tournament. It seemed a long time since the tournament in Jingshi but my opponent was as graceful as I remembered. She was also as quick as I remembered and much more wary of me than she had been that first time. This time it took a dust disk, shadow balls, and shadow tentacles to knock her out of the ring. She almost danced her way out of trouble several times but I was still able to prevail.
When I returned to my seat beside Master Que after that bout I found that he had been joined by Cao Liu Ho who was now unmasked and in street clothes. I thought his street clothes, which were very modern and elegant, went better with his voice than his Mask did and he lounged in his seat in a way that exuded casual elegance, but which would have made any of my brothers look as if they were sulking. He and Master Que were discussing the bout that was about to take place in the ring in front of us but I had the impression that they’d just changed the subject. There were another set of bouts after that and then we broke for lunch for an hour.
Meal boxes were provided for all the competitors in every division as well as for people like Master Que. We ate ours in my allocated change room and found that they contained a perfectly satisfactory meal of rice paper rolls, rice balls, a piece of fruit and cold tea, and I thought nothing of it until Master Que remarked, “This is new and so is the random matching.”
I asked, “What’s new?”
“Providing meals for competitors,” answered Master Que. “It almost makes me think that something happened somewhere. I wonder if that dinner meeting at the Celestial Lotus the other night had anything to do with it?”
“An accident sort of something or a deliberate maliciousness?” I didn’t have to imagine that some people tried to fix gi matches, I knew they did. A case would make it into the papers every few years or you’d hear something being muttered around – well around the playground in my case up until now. Sometimes, in amateur gi, it was simply about the prestige (although that could lead to valuable sponsorships) but it could be about betting even though it was technically illegal to bet or make wagers on matches in most amateur gi classes. In professional gi it was always about money somewhere or somehow.
“An accident sufficient to produce this sort of reaction would have been in the papers and on the news,” said Master Que. “There’s been nothing. Likewise something malicious being perpetrated at a level to produce this reaction would have produced, at the very least, whispers like the ripples in a pond from a stone. Again, I’ve heard nothing however,” he grinned at me, “there are fighters and teachers here from all over the province, and beyond. I think we should spend the rest of our lunch break mingling, and seeing how the Rau boys are doing.”
“For their own sakes or for the gossip you might pick up?”
Perhaps I was being a little cynical about Master Que’s motivations because he answered, “There’s no reason we can’t deal with two matters in the same meeting. Besides, if the random opponent selection is happening in the amateur grades too, it’s possible that the threat was against the integrity of their bouts and not ours. Our theoretical obligation to those two might depend very much on the nous of their teacher.”
I admit that I looked at him affectionately, “So we’re practically obliged to find out what we can without making waves?”
“I knew you’d see it my way.” Master Que donned his Mask. “Let us sally forth!”
We didn’t have to sally forth that far to find the Raus because it turned out that the organisers were using the professional lunch break to prevent a backlog in the amateur matches by running some of them through our rings. Rau Mung’s match was on in the middle of the three professional rings when we returned. I thought that he was making better choices than his opponent, a boy called Chan Pu whose father seemed to be someone important, but I thought that Chan Pu just that bit better and was likely to win. Unfortunately for Chan Pu, he thought so too and that was his mistake because he ignored what Rau Mung was doing and reacted to what he thought Rau Mung would do. My impression was that, although a local, Chan Pu wasn’t particularly popular because a lot of people laughed as he slid backwards out of the ring, aquaplaned by Rau Mung’s attack and unable to affect his own trajectory.
Master Que took the opportunity to push forward to congratulate Rau Mung on his victory and scrape an introduction to his gi teacher. He was not the only one to do so, but Master Que got there first and the two Masters had time to exchange bows before another man, middle-aged and dressed in tailored blacks joined them. The newcomer was perfectly polite as he begged an introduction to the Raus, he was perfectly polite to them and I was left the impression that he already knew the Raus’ teacher, Master Lao. I had the impression too that Master Que knew his name, which was Tchau Pu, even if he didn’t know the man himself.
I found it interesting that in speaking to Rau Mung and Madam Rau, Tchau Pu asked about Rau Mung’s marks in mathematics and whether the boy was interested in business studies. I was standing quietly on the edge of the conversation, as befitted my status, while Master Que spoke with Rau Wang. That let me see everyone without being intrusive and I’m sure that all of us were surprised when Tchau Pu offered Rau Mung a bursary to complete his secondary schooling and then, subject to satisfactory marks, a business traineeship in his company.
“I’m in apothecarial supplies,” he explained to Madam Rau as he handed her a business card, “and tenacious, bright young men aren’t as common a commodity as one might like. From what I’ve seen of Rau Mung so far, I would be very happy to have him come and work for me in a few years.”
“When you suggest a bursary,” ventured Madam Rau cautiously, “how much might you have in mind?”
Tchau Pu mentioned an annual sum that would more than cover public school contributions, school clothing and excursion fees. “It may have to be increased annually,” he added, “because I imagine your family expenses will increase as the children get older and I want Rau Mung to have time to study instead of having to work to contribute to the family income. I would expect him to spend time in his school holidays working in my business.”
“That’s a most generous offer, if all you want is a business trainee,” said Madam Rau cautiously. She added, “I don’t mean to be rude, but one hears stories…”
“Shocking stories,” agreed Tchau Pu, “and unfortunately true. I’m a father of three girls myself, so I understand your concerns. I can provide you with character and business referees whom I’m sure will be able to reassure you.”
“Thank you,” Madam Rau was smiling at him now, “I would appreciate that very much.”
Master Que made our excuses at that point because the draw for the next round of the professional tournament was being posted. As we walked away he commented quietly, “Well, that was unexpected. Tchau Pu isn’t just the biggest supplier in the southeastern provinces of royal ginseng, dragon bone and rhino horn, he runs an extensive, only semi-legal cage fighting and betting operation. Rau Mung is younger than I would have expected him to be interested in for that. Unless…,” from the tone of his voice I suspected that he was now grinning widely. “He very specifically mentioned business, good marks and then brought up his daughters. I’m sure it’s not why Tchau Pu came here today but I think he plans to train Rau Mung up as a potential son-in-law.”
“Depending on the daughters, that could mean he has real prospects, couldn’t it?” I was thinking of Rau Wang’s comments about having to leave school when he turned seventeen, “At the very least, he’ll be able to finish school.”
“Yes,” agreed Master Que, “but I wonder why that meeting was arranged in the first place?”
Then we were back into the fray of the professional tournament and had no more time to worry about the Raus for the time being. I completed my first bout after lunch by touch and sound because my Qianting opponent’s first light attack caught me straight in the eyes – shadow tentacles were my friend but not his. I could see again by my next bout, albeit with after images trailing across my field of vision, although that didn’t explain why the Laosung-controlled air movements within the ring looked so clear to me, sort of violetish. I suspected that my opponent was infusing his moves with raw power somehow, and so was very careful to dodge, shield and block his attacks before knocking him out of the ring with a leg sweep and shadow ball combination.
By the bout after that my vision had returned to normal and my Chiangshi opponent’s fire and flame looked completely normal. Dust quenched his fire and a shadow floor helped him out of the ring before I faced a Laosung who’d needed medical clearance to take part in our match after he’d been knocked unconscious in his previous bout. I was careful not to aim for his head and kept my attacks at torso level and below; in fact I won the bout by converting the portion of shadow floor he was standing on to small shadow balls and then pushing him and his shields backwards with a long blast of dust. I owed the idea to Rau Mung.
Then we broke again, not precisely for dinner but because the last two rounds of the professional tournament were to be televised live and the television people weren’t ready for us yet. We were about to go and see how the sixteen year old amateur boys were going when the business man who’d been with the foreigners both times we’d seen them during the week came up to us and bowed to Master Que. “Please forgive the intrusion,” he was very apologetic, “but after last night they insisted on coming today and we had afternoon tickets.”
“Did your associates enjoy themselves?” Master Que sounded interested and nothing more.
“Yes, up until the culture shock set in,” replied the business man. “They had thought the gi effects shown in the movies they’d seen were cinematographic trickery. Now they want to ask questions, and to drink alcohol.”
“If they didn’t believe in sorcery, then I can imagine they might have that reaction,” said Master Que quietly. “One has heard that about foreigners. Although, if they’re anything like me they might want to drink alcohol anyway. My student and I can spare them a few minutes but I do have another matter that demands my attention shortly.”
“I understand,” the business man was grateful. “They’re asking questions I can’t answer.”
He shepherded his charges over to us a few moments later and Master Que spent over five minutes answering their questions. The portion of the exchange that stuck in my mind was, “So in the movies, that’s real and not trickery?”
“Generally, yes,” agreed Master Que. “Any sort of theatrical production will generally use a set piece and not a spontaneous fight – they do have the outcome decided in advance, after all. There are different skill sets involved.”
“So we couldn’t go to a gi fight and see Siu Fang in action?”
Master Que’s shoulders twitched but he didn’t laugh out loud. “No, I’m afraid not. Siu Fang used to fight in the amateur open division but she was accused of attempting to seduce a referee and although she wasn’t actually sanctioned, it ruined her career. She wound up, several years later, marrying the head of the inquiry.”
He excused us shortly after that and we left the foreigners floundering on the shoals of differing cultural realities and went to see how the Rau boys were doing.
Rau Mung’s tournament was over as he’d been knocked out just before the finals. Rau Wang, however, was one of the two finalists in his age division and his opponent was one of the boys from his home region whom we’d discussed in the train, Soong Chi. Master Que sat down next to Master Lao to watch the bout and I sat next to Master Que.
“So,” began Master Que quietly to Master Lao, “are you in the habit of offering your students to Tchau Pu?”
Master Lao looked at him tiredly then returned his gaze to Rau Wang’s bout in front of us. “The truth is I bet, badly.”
“Most of us who get to our age pick up a flaw or two on the way,” remarked Master Que. “Myself, I drink to excess and smoke.”
“I owe Tchau Pu’s bookies not insubstantial sums. It’s a tie of sorts,” went on Master Lao, “and I am actually quite attached to the Rau family as a group – among other things I admire how they’ve pushed through their problems since Rau Nyo’s death. Unfortunately, I can’t protect them.”
“Protect them?” It was Master Que’s turn to glance at the other man.
“An agent of a man named Wu Tang attended our regional tournament,” said Master Lao. “That isn’t unusual. His agents attend any gathering where talented, potentially attractive, young people compete or otherwise displaying their talents and accomplishments. Concerts, recitals, sporting competitions, everything.”
“To what purpose?” I thought Master Que sounded rather bleak.
“Wu Tang is a procurer of young flesh.” Master Lao was equally bleak, “His agent noticed the Raus and I’m afraid for them. Madam Rau is cautious and careful, but I don’t know what she would do if one or more of her children were offered a well-paid ‘good opportunity’ in a far off town or city because I don’t know how desperate they are.”
Master Que clarified, “And you think Tchau Pu can offer them protection that you can’t?”
“Exactly,” Master Lao sighed. “Wu Tang would sell the lot of them off and not care what happened to them after that. Tchau Pu might drag them into the dirty underbelly, but he’d wait till they were eighteen to do it.” He suddenly leaned forward, “Wait, did you see that?”
Just as Master Que was hissing, “Oh, yes,” Soong Chi pivoted on one foot and was hit by a sudden blast of water in what must have been both a blind spot and a weak point in his defences. He was sent spinning backwards out of the rink, producing a chorus of groans from a group that looked like his family, gi teacher and fellow students. I was one of the people cheering – Rau Wang had made it into the national tournament.
This is now followed by The Finals Of The Provincial Tournament.