After Rau Wang’s victory, the lead up to my last two bouts almost seemed like an anticlimax, no disrespect to my opponents. I did wind up feeling sorry for Soong Chi’s teacher because he had to stop his student’s father from lodging a groundless appeal - I think his grounds were that Rau Wang was Khem as well as poor and thus couldn’t possibly have beaten his son in a fair fight. I saw a judge join that discussion and another join Rau Wang and Master Lao. Soong Chi had looked disappointed and surprised to lose, but by the time we had to leave to be about our own business he looked as if he wanted to disappear through the floor. It probably didn’t help that his mother was trying to console him while he was attempting to handle losing like an adult.
In contrast to that scene the professional tournament rings were a sphere of calm organization, even taking into account the addition of television broadcast crews and the final rounds of the open amateur competition to the mix. Master Que and I had seats reserved for us in the competitors’ section at the front. This was probably a good thing because that way we didn’t have to jostle for seats I could get into and out of easily. Even so we had to dissuade a woman with a headset from the television station from blocking us in and it took the organisers to make her move her equipment back two rows to where it was supposed to be.
The last two rounds of the professional competition were going to be interleaved with the final two rounds of the men and women’s open amateur divisions, for broadcast purposes, so there were to be nine bouts in all for the final phase of the competition. My bout against Xi Ji Jiang was the second of the professional bouts so we were the sixth bout of the evening and although the amateur bouts were interesting, the conversations about them were more interesting still. I found out, for instance, that the television broadcast was being sponsored by the firm that also sponsored Han Kae, in the first women’s open bout and Chu Tsing in the second open men’s bout so the woman with the headset was being pressured to get lots of close ups of them during their bouts. The people directly behind us were some sort of connection to Chi Xi in the second women’s bout and they wanted Han Kae to win the first bout because they thought Chi Xi would do better against her than against her opponent in the final. I have nothing against Chi Xi herself, but by the time her bout started her connections had been so obnoxiously unpleasant that I wanted her to lose.
Not for the reason or as spectacularly as she did, of course. Personally I would never have expected a fire attack not to cauterize the wound, which suggests that the Chiangshi Loo Lu was doing something quite unusual. Naturally after that the conversations in the audience revolved around figuring out exactly what she’d done. Master Que thought it was probably a waijin and we were interested in it because Loo Lu using it here could well mean that it might be used by a Chiangshi in the nationals – assuming they could figure it out in time.
Personally I didn’t find the open men’s amateur division bouts as engaging as the women’s. The first two, Tsui Tong and Gwei Ma, were both Qianting and watching them fight was like watching two sparring partners go through forms together, at triple speed, until someone made a mistake – then it got interesting. The response and the recovery, then counterattack, were textbook (as far as I, who am not a member of their school, could tell) and the one who faltered won the bout. The falter could have been a feint but at the time I didn’t think that Gwei Ma had that much guile, but he could have been far cleverer than I gave him credit for. Despite what I thought of them, it was a virtuoso performance from two technical masters. The second men’s open bout was a very different horse. Chu Tsing’s opponent, Zhang Wong, looked like he’d been styled within an inch of his life and I hoped that it had been his choice and not someone else’s – I mean it was presumably his choice to wear nail polish on his finger and toe nails, but iridescent and glow-in-the-dark nail polish? I thought the styling included his movements as well because everything he did seemed to end in a pose.
“I wonder,” Master Que muttered to me after the first dozen exchanges of the bout, “whether Zhang Wong is aiming for some sort of screen career? That could explain his moves.”
“And he’s inconveniently good at competitions?” I was skeptical.
“Doing well in competitions is a way of advertising his skills,” pointed out Master Que. “It’s like looking for a sponsor, a very particular type of sponsor in this case.” I conceded the point, just as Chu Tsing stumbled out of the ring, shaking his head furiously as if trying to dispel a ringing in his ears.
“He was unlucky,” muttered Master Que but I wondered if that had been a factor or not. It was entirely possible that the whole styling thing made it easy to underestimate Zhang Wong. He had just beaten the fancied fighter, after all, and I was finding the prospect of the men’s open amateur final a technically interesting prospect, even if I didn’t find either of the contestants particularly engaging.
The first professional bout between Lu Ma Zhe and Chang Siu Mao was more interesting because I might face the winner. It also helped that I thought that both of them and their gi had more genuine personality in their little fingers than any of the open amateur male fighters had in their entire beings. I admit that I was being uncharitable and that could have been from having to wait so long for my bout while sitting through bouts that had no bearing on mine. However, Chang Siu Mao was a tall, lanky Taozhu with an interesting line in rising water traps. I would have been in deep trouble against him but Lu Ma Zhe was Laosung and so was able to use his gi to get himself air – after an initial tense few moments when it looked like he might have to yield or drown because Chang Siu Mao’s water traps moved with his opponent. Lu Ma Zhe won because he realized that once he wasn’t in danger of drowning, he could still fight. It took him a few moves to recalibrate his precision, but then he knocked his opponent out of the ring with a series of slashes and kicks that were only slightly slowed by his immersion in a column of water. I took mental notes.
Xi Ji Jiang concentrated my attention wonderfully with his first attack, which was not the text book copy perfect version that his Qianting amateur brethren had played out for us earlier. He was a fantastically squiggly fighter and a joy to fight, in a masochistic I-hope-can-beat-this-sod sort of way. I hope the amateurs were taking notes because we went to the time limit and the match was awarded on points. As I only won by one point I can safely say that I was merely the better fighter on the day but I was confident that Xi Ji Jiang was the best Qianting present.
The women’s open amateur final started with almost unseemly haste after our bout finished and I gathered that the television people were annoyed that Xi Ji Jiang and I had run ‘over time’ according to their schedule. I merely gave them my best imitation of one of Master Que’s death looks, which they probably didn’t see because of my Mask, and let my opponent be sarcastic at the production assistant who’d raised the issue. I then asked an official about Chi Xi before returning to Master Que and my seat.
“What was that about?” Master Que seemed to be referring to my conversation with the official, so I told him, “I asked about Chi Xi. Apparently she’s resting comfortably but may require further treatment.”
He nodded then asked, “And the television person?”
“I think he tried to chastise us for fighting too long. Xi Ji Jiang is dealing with it.” I looked over to where we’d exited the ring at the end of our bout. “Oh, look, now the referees are involved.”
“If he’s not careful, that fool could lose his employers the franchise,” commented Master Que. “They’re not allowed to interfere in the bouts at all, even if they have a say in timing. Of course, if he loses them the franchise I doubt they’ll keep him on.” Then he switched his attention to Loo Lu and Han Kae.
Both fighters began with a quick attack, with Han Kae using air slashes and Loo Lu using a billow of flame that flashed into the space between the air attacks. They had a fast and furious exchange and I almost missed the moment when Loo Lu unleashed the attack that had won her the previous bout. Han Kae didn’t miss it though, and she suddenly dropped backwards from the knees. I was impressed because not only did she manage to hold the position with her body parallel to the floor but she’d judged it so that the flame blade tumbled through the air merely two inches above her torso as she held the position. She didn’t merely dodge Loo Lu’s attack, she counterattacked from that position – it might have been a simple air blast but I was impressed that she got it off without falling to the ground. She followed it up with a double leg sweep that knocked Loo Lu off her feet and then, after a short series of exchanges where Loo Lu appeared to have the advantage, Han Kae sent her opponent out of the ring with a power blast of air to the stomach.
With the provincial women’s open amateur division settled, it was time for the men’s open amateur final. I admit that my prejudices led me to expect technical perfection from these two, showmanship from Zhang Wong, and not a lot more from either of them. I was wrong. Gwei Ma was still fast, fast enough that Zhang Wong didn’t have time to pose at the end of his moves. Without that frankly artificial pause in his movements he was much more fluid, organic, even snake-like in his movements. Much more dangerous too I thought and so, apparently, did Gwei Ma. If his first bout I’d seen had been by a standardized playbook, his second made it look like Gwei Ma had tossed that book out and found another one. One written by a Qianting who didn’t believe in playing fair, not that Zhang Wong seemed to mind because you just had to look at him to see that he was enjoying himself.
By the end of their bout I was very glad not to be fighting either of them. Both were bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions, Zhang Wong was chuckling to himself, Gwei Ma was grinning, and both of them had sweat running off them in streams. I was just thinking that Zhang Wong looked better when his hair wasn’t locked firmly into that ridiculous shape when Gwei Ma suddenly cast a light floor over half the ring and tilted it. I say suddenly, but he’d been moving at that speed all bout. As he slid towards the edge of the ring, Zhang Wong moved almost as if he was making shadow tentacles, stopped sliding, made another gesture and then Gwei Ma looked like he was being pulled towards the edge of the ring. The light floor shimmered and shook, then Zhang Wong started sliding out of the ring again. In the end they crossed the edge of the ring simultaneously and the bout was awarded on points and a count back. Master Que and I exchanged some remarks about air tentacles while we all waited on the judges’ decision, for rather a long time. By the time the referee returned to the centre to make the announcement I think we had said all we could on the subject and the two competitors had definitely cooled down.
“After due consideration and extensive consultation of the rules,” announced the worthy Zhao Ban, “the duly appointed panel of judges for this competition has determined that the bout has ended in a draw. Zhang Wong and Gwei Ma are joint provincial champions in the Open Men’s Division. Both are entitled to participate in the national tournament for their Division.”
“Well,” said Master Que, “that’s a surprise, isn’t it?”
“They had the same points?” I was astonished. “I mean, is that possible?”
“I would have said, theoretically, yes,” replied Master Que drily, “but apparently it’s more than a theoretical possibility. Now, be in your own head, heart and self – they must be about to call your bout.”
And they did.
Lu Ma Zhe’s white Mask looked like a wind spirit from classic painting; all pouty lips, exaggerated eye tilt and puffy cheeks. As we bowed in greeting he said, “So, how are you coping with the enforced irrelevancies, Student of Shui Tzu Dan?”
I answered, “If every bout is a test, then part of the test is how you cope with the conditions surrounding it.”
He laughed and said, “That makes you sound like a nun, or a philosopher scholar. You probably need to get out more and let someone rock your world.” Then he made a gesture that I hadn’t previously associated with a gi move but on this occasion produced a nasty sharp little wind slash that I suspect was designed to upset me more than injure. I responded with shadow tentacles that aimed to restrict his movements and drag him out of the ring plus dust balls that he had to either deal with or take the consequences of. He chose to bat them out of the air with wind slashes that also attacked the tentacles while using attacks at me that were designed to infuriate, and I could only think that his strategy was aimed at getting me to lose my composure. Naturally, I was determined to keep it. Also, the air in the ring was growing dusty from all the dispersed dust balls and I don’t think he realized the significance of that. By dint of attacking my tentacles when he could and stepping forward every time he attacked, Lu Ma Zhe hadn’t yet reached the edge of the ring.
That changed when I decided that there was sufficient ambient dust in the air around us. When he slashed at my dust balls I took control of his air slashes by controlling the dust contaminating them and turned the slashes against him. The effect of the slashes, my dust balls and the tentacles suddenly did put him uncomfortably close to the edge and I finished his journey with a quick leg sweep that he almost managed to dodge. Almost, but not quite. I’d won the bout and I was on my way to the national titles.
There was an awards ceremony where the open divisions received their trophies and I and the other top ranking professional fighters received our prize money. I handed my wonderfully heavy prize purse straight to Master Que for safe keeping and asked him if we might give a portion towards Chi Xi’s medical expenses. We were watching and applauding as the other received their prize purses so he nodded and quietly asked, “What should I say if I’m asked why you’re making a donation?”
“I learnt something interesting and useful about gi today and it seemed unfair that she would be the only one to pay a price for the lesson.”
As Master Que gave a harrumphing, stifled laugh, Lu Ma Zhe who was standing next to me in the lineup added, just as quietly added, “Please let us know, Student, when you decide whether you’re an angel or an assassin. It would help us know what we’re dealing with.”
My come back, “It’s not up to me to make it easy for you, wind sprite,” may have lacked originality because, really, I was quoting something Master Que had been saying for years, but it did make my most recent opponent laugh behind his Mask.
The Raus had already left for the night, and who could blame them, but Master Lao had stayed to see the awards ceremony. He was able to tell us that Tchau Pu was paying for him to accompany Rau Wang to the capital for the national tournament and, in fact for all Rau Wang’s national tournament expenses. It wasn’t quite a formal sponsorship but it was a great help to the Raus and meant that Madam Rau didn’t feel obliged to take the entire family to the capital for the national tournament, thus avoiding all the expenses that would involve. “It also builds ties between Tchau Pu and the Raus,” commented Master Que.
“Indeed,” agreed Master Lao. “I have hopes that he might sponsor the third brother, Rau Tong, when he’s ready to take part in this level of tournament because I believe the boy is gifted and that he deserves every chance we can get him, but I may have under estimated Rau Wang’s tournament ability.”
“These things aren’t always predicated by raw power,” agreed Master Que. “Perhaps we’ll see you on the train to the capital tomorrow?”
“Possibly,” said Master Lao. “Heaven knows that if we don’t get there as soon as possible there’ll be no chance of getting somewhere decent to stay. At least we’ll be on our way home for the New Year celebrations.”
We parted on that note. Master Que and I went straight back to the hotel and I slept. I know that I dreamt but when I woke I couldn’t remember anything except that I’d been excited. It turned out that Master Que had been up well before breakfast, gone to the station and gotten us first class tickets on the midday train to the capital. We had breakfast when he returned, then packed up our bags and checked out of the hotel. I had to stop at the post office on our way to the station to check my mail and there was indeed a letter waiting for me.
A letter with a university seal on the top left front corner and over the closure seal. I didn’t dare open it on my own and carried it over to Master Que. He looked at it in my hand and said, “Well, sit down and open it.”
I did, and read it, then passed it to him, asking, “Does that really say…?”
He scanned it. “That you’ve been admitted to the Earth Sciences Undergraduate Program at the University of Xiamtian? Yes.”
“That was my first choice of course at my first choice of university.” I couldn’t quite believe it.
“Then you should call them with your acceptance now,” said Master Que firmly and guided me over to the public telephones.
Even after a fifteen minute conversation with the admissions office I still couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Frankly, I’d assumed that my first choice of course and university wouldn’t have had any places left for the final placement sweep but I was happy to be wrong. Very, very happy.
I was still ecstatically numb when we boarded the train with our luggage and meal baskets. Although we were in first class, this train had no private compartments and we would be sitting with whomever else the booking office had paired us with. As it happened, our compartment gained only one other occupant before we left Bao Shung. It was the tall, thin, querulous woman who’d disapproved of our seating arrangements on the train to Bao Shung.
This is now followed by In Which There Is An Important Conversation.