Master Que introduced me to Master Chu as soon as possible. They were much of an age and while Master Que looked like a villain from a novel or a movie, Master Chu looked like someone cast in the older hero role. He also walked with a stick and it looked to me as if he didn’t have a full range of motion in the knee on his dominant leg. I was, as instructed, very polite and I think my mother would have been pleased with my manners. Master Chu was, for his part, very affable while Master Que was very formal, possibly because it gave him the opportunity to be, well, not submissive but definitely deferential to our host.
At Master Chu’s insistence we started each of our training days by taking tea with him in the little garden beside his training room. This meant that the first of Master Chu’s morning classes arrived each day to see their teacher hosting us at his table. We certainly got hard looks from some of the students once it became known who Master Que was but, with Master Chu’s hospitality being obviously extended to us, we had no trouble from them. After a morning’s work we had lunch at either the eel place on the corner or the hot pot place on the next block down. Then we took some time to conduct business, Master Que to organise his arrangement with Cao Liu Ho and I to visit the real estate agent with contacts in Xiamtian. That being done for the day, we continued training for another few hours before going back to our hotel before getting dinner.
I spent the first two evenings carefully writing “Prosperous New Year,” “Best New Year Wishes,” or “Lucky New Year” in gold ink on my red paper packets. My calligraphy will never be that of a master, but I was pleased with the results. When that was done, I worked out how much I was prepared to put in each packet and composed a covering letter to my parents. The next afternoon I went to the bank and withdrew the money I needed to fill my packets, portioned it out, filled and sealed the packets, then parcelled them up. A trip to the post office later and my box containing both the packets and my letter was on its way via registered mail to Jingshi.
While I had been doing that, Master Que had been booking our tickets to Xiamtian. It was going to be a three day train trip and we would have to travel over the New Year holiday, but we would arrive in time to organise accommodation and everything else before university classes started.
That evening I did have trouble with one of Master Chu’s students. I’d already noticed Tsung Cao. He was big, broad, loud in front of his friends and reminded me forcibly of boys I’d been to school with. He cornered me after I’d come out of the change room but before Master Que had joined me. “What say you ditch the old man and come spend some time with a man who still has some life in him?” He illustrated his invitation with what my secondary school would have described as ‘an inappropriate hand gesture.’ Once more he reminded me forcibly of some of the boys back in school who’d been in the top tier of their sport and were used to getting anything they wanted. Not that any of them wasted time on me, not after that thing with Sun Mat from the debating team – the in-girls were probably safer to deal with.
I was tired and I may have overreacted. I certainly acted without conscious thought going through my mind and as a result my large, boorish swain found himself suspended upside down by his ankles with his head level with mine. The shadow tentacles holding him like that were, of course, mine. “Firstly, Master Que and I do not have the sort of relationship that you seem to be implying and I will thank you to stop suggesting such things.” I almost didn’t recognise my own voice because it was pitched lower than usual and sounded very, very angry. “Secondly, I doubt you can afford to be my patron which is the only relationship between us that I can conceive of that would lead me to even cross the street with you. Thirdly, your approach lacks couth. Master Chu has it, you don’t. You may wish to ask him for lessons in social graces as well as gi.”
“You can’t do this to me!” He was spluttering and the rest of what he said was fairly incoherent although I did catch the words ‘girl’ and ‘guest.’
When he paused, perhaps for breath, I said, “But I demonstrably did do it. Now I just have to decide whether to let you down or to leave you here for the night.”
“I really don’t think that Tsung Cao improves the appearance of my hallway,” put in Master Chu quietly from behind me, “and I would note that being upside down for too long can be detrimental to one’s health.”
“If you want him down then I shall, of course, put him down sir.” I had my two tentacles carefully lower Tsung Cao to the ground.
“Thank you, Miss Sung.” Master Chu had moved forward so that he was beside me now. “Tsung Cao, you will apologise to Miss Sung. I did not hear the original remark that upset her but I did hear part of her rebuttal and all of your response.”
As he was no longer upside down, being suspended by his ankles can’t have been the reason the young man’s face turned bright red at that point. “I uh uh apologise unreservedly for any offence my remarks may have given, Miss Sung, and beg your forgiveness for any slights,” he caught the twitch in my expression as I felt it cross my face and corrected himself, “for those slights I offered.”
“Thank you,” I nodded in acknowledgement and thought that my voice still sounded terse. “In the future, please consider what the consequences of making such remarks might be before you make them.” I turned to Master Chu and bowed. “Master Chu, I believe I should apologise for making a scene in your premises.”
“Your apology is accepted, Miss Sung, and I regret the necessity of your having to do so.” He returned my bow. “Please be assured that I will review Tsung Cao’s behaviour with him.”
Master Que emerged from the change room at that point and on seeing us all asked cheerfully, “So, what did I miss?”
Master Chu answered, “Unfortunately Miss Sung was placed in the invidious position of having to deal with some unpleasant behaviour from one of my students. I believe we have, however, arranged an appropriate conclusion to the matter.”
Master Que looked at me and asked, “Nai?”
“I believe that Master Chu’s summary is correct, Master Que.” I could hear that my voice wasn’t quite back to normal and Master Que gave me a sharp look.
“Very well then, if the matter has been concluded, then I will take my student back to our lodgings. Until tomorrow, Master Chu.”
The two masters bowed to each other and Master Chu agreed, “Until tomorrow.”
I followed Master Que out of the school and we were a block away when Master Que asked, “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“I would prefer not to.” I was pleased to hear that my voice was back to normal. “I reacted without thinking. That’s not very pleasing.”
“We spend a lot of time training you to react without conscious thought,” pointed out Master Que. “In a bout you don’t have time to stop to think.”
“This wasn’t in a bout.” I was beginning to feel bad about the whole thing.
“If Master Chu had thought you were in the wrong, he would have said so,” commented Master Que. “Did he?”
“No, but I apologised for making a scene.” My heart or my stomach was beginning to feel like a stone in my chest.
“And Master Chu told me that a satisfactory conclusion had been arranged,” Master Que said. “I could tell that you’d been very angry when I arrived, so whatever you’re feeling now is probably reaction to that. It doesn’t mean that you were wrong to be angry.”
“I’m not used to being angry,” I admitted. “I’m used to being good and being good means not making a fuss by having or showing strong emotions.”
Master Que sighed. “We may have to work on your internalized definition of ‘good’ behaviour. It sounds more to me like behaviour that’s convenient for someone else. For now, I think you’ll feel better after a good meal.”
He was right, I did. We had a noodle dinner that night with chilli and ginger and the aroma alone made me feel better. Back in my room I tried to start reading my new books but philosophy didn’t appeal and I found that although Notes Betwixt the Outer Court was interesting, I could only read two letters before wanting to look at something else, so I picked up the The Guanzhou Affair and began reading that. I was so thoroughly enjoying Lady Wei flitting through the Solar Court in the Fujing Period, being introduced to her friends and the rest of her social circle, that the murder of General Lord Ping Ti came as a sudden shock. Naturally I’d gotten to that part just as it was time to go to bed.
The next two days passed uneventfully. We took tea with Master Chu each morning but I only saw Tsung Cao once and then only in the distance. I came to cordially dislike some of the sorcerous hazards I might meet in the tournament and I continued to read both Notes and The Guanzhou Affair. The real estate agent promised me a list of suitable properties to inspect in Xiamtian by the time we had to leave the capital. I was, as it happened, written up in the newspapers as part of the lead up to the national tournament, along with a lot of other fighters, but as I wasn’t interviewed for the article it didn’t really happen to me.
The night before the tournament I dreamed of Lady Wei and her widowed friend, Lady Ping.
Master Que and I were up early the next morning. The papers at breakfast were so dominated by the national gi tournaments that I assumed it was a slow news day. The rest of the news seemed to start on page four or five with a fishing dispute in the Great Southern Ocean and an impending visit by a foreign head of state. I found that I could only skim the headlines and the first few paragraphs of each article because I couldn’t settle enough to read the whole of anything. I ate a sensible breakfast anyway, and then we collected our gi gear from our rooms before making our way to the tournament venue.
There were 34 competitors in every class of the national tournament, one for each province in the country. I can’t speak to the details of the organisation of the amateur championships, but the entire tournament went over two days. The first round of the professional tournament was three levels of round robin bouts with progression to the second round depending on the results of the first round. Fighters who won two of their three initial bouts usually progressed to the second round but only those with three wins were guaranteed progression.
I lost my second bout.
Chan Siew Bo was a powerhouse hitter and his first move had been a solid wall of shadow and dust that moved across the ring with the speed of a train. I was physically picked up and pushed out of the ring before I could do more than get up a defensive shield, not that it helped, and try to disrupt his stance with a leg sweep. I did the only thing I could at that point – pick myself up, make my bows and return to Master Que.
“Just in case I’d started to think I might be really good at this,” I commented to Master Que.
“There’s always someone better,” replied Master Que serenely, “but we can try to choose when we meet them. If we can’t, well we do our best to learn from it. What would you do if you had that fight over again?”
“Anchor his right arm and left leg with shadow tentacles so he couldn’t make that move,” I said promptly. “He might expect it, but that wouldn’t matter if I could pull it off.”
“It would push him back to his other options,” agreed Master Que. “Also, notice that he used a very strong move on you right away. He may think that you can deal with the rest of his repertoire. That could be because you’re Hoshun too or it could be because you’re you, and I don’t know him well enough to know which it is.”
“Even so, I still have one more bout,” I commented, more down hearted than I felt I had a right to be because even if I was being eliminated in the first round, I’d still made the nationals in my first year of tournaments of any kind.
“And it will count,” said Master Que sternly. “More than half of the fighters who lost their first bout have lost their second. Win your third bout and you’ll finish the first round ahead of them.”
“It’s not over till it’s over,” I smiled at him as I quoted an old admonishment back at him. “Let’s see who I get for my third bout.”
My third bout opponent was a Taozhu representing the most far western of the provinces, Guotang. People say that Guotang’s different because ideas have to go through so many minds and mouths to get there and Ku Ming Low was the most extreme example I’d seen of that because a braided beard and beaded hair were not things I’d seen anywhere in my travels up until that point. I have to concede that the colour of his hair beads went very well with the colours of his mask. Admiring his personal adornment choices didn’t stop me from taking the surface friction out from under him, blocking his water balls with a shadow shield and then sending him sliding out of the ring on a sheen of his own water. That put us both at two wins and one loss so we were both either going forward to the second round or being eliminated.
It didn’t help my nerves that we had to wait till the entire third set of bouts were finished to know whether we’d made the cut or not. Two bouts went to maximum time and were called on points to finish but finally we had an announcement of who’d made it into the second round. We were down to seventeen fighters and I’d made the cut.
If I was good and if I was lucky, there were four more rounds to go.
Round two saw the introduction of hazards and was to be our final round of the day. The junior amateur tournaments were being finalised on that first day but the rest of us had another full day ahead of us.
Or so we hoped. The first professional bout of the second round was between Goh Cho Long and the Student of Master Quong Mah and they were both carried from the ring unconscious after falling foul of the electrical sorcerous hazard in their bout. I, at least, found that result sobering. It also removed the need for byes in future rounds of our tournament, although I could have wished that someone other than Chan Siew Bo had gotten that one and only bye.
My own second round bout was against Chiang Hong Chen, a Chiangshi, and we had some sort of coherent light emitting beacon to contend with. I dealt with that by putting a ball of dust around the emitting section and holding the dust there with a shadow shield. I didn’t know long it would last, and in the meantime I had to dodge my opponent’s fire lash. While I could concentrate on him, I threw dust balls at him which he promptly flamed out of existence with a fire shield. That had no effect at all on the shadow balls that the dust balls had been encasing and I was able to flurry him out of the ring before he was able to use an effective counter.
With that, I was done for the day but we stayed to see who else would be progressing to the third round in the morning. The draw for that round wouldn’t be available until fifteen minutes before it was due to start but I personally hoped that someone else would get the opportunity to eliminate Chan Siew Bo from the tournament.
When the last of the second round professional bouts were done we went to see how Rau Wang was doing and found that he had still to fight in his final bout for the day. I would have liked to stay and see it, but Master Que insisted that I would need an early night and made our apologies to Rau Wang and his teacher, Master Lao. I was surprised to hear him muttering to other two under cover of my farewells and good wishes, “Be careful of the youngish man over there wearing a black brocade jacket with his blacks. I don’t doubt his interest in gi, but his name is Sheng Deng. He’s not only a rising member of the Storm Dragon triad, but his father is Sheng Jian, one of their power brokers. You may need to be careful, if only to be polite.”
The other two thanked Master Que for his warning and I was taken back to our hotel for a good dinner and an early night. I read another chapter of the adventures of Lady Wei and then slept like a log for eight and a half hours. If I had dreams, I remembered nothing of them when I woke.
This is followed by In Which I Gain An Admirer.