There was a picture of me on the front of the newspaper Master Que handed me over breakfast. Someone skilled in the photographic arts had caught that moment when I crossed the boundary of the ring impelled by the force of Chan Siew Bo’s attack. It looked like it ought to have hurt more than it did and I said as much to Master Que. “It’s a good thing you know how to land properly,” he told me drily, “or it would have.”
“You always tell me that landing is when most people get hurt,” I reminded him with a smile. “It’s a good thing I paid attention in those lessons.”
“It is,” he agreed. “It’s not an elegant image, but you might like to contact the newspaper tomorrow and enquire about securing your share of the image rights. I agree that the photographer who took this deserves every copper tael he gets from reprints but if you don’t claim your image rights, then the newspaper will collect the copper taels that could have been yours and Chan Siew Bo’s. This image is dramatic enough that I expect it will reused a lot – there’ll be more than enough copper taels to go around.”
“Should I claim my image rights every time I wind up in the newspaper?” I hadn’t considered this before and I was finding it helpful not to think about the rest of the day just yet.
“Not every time,” Master Que nodded over his teacup, the contents of which were steaming so it was probable that it only held tea. “When there’s a particularly good image you think might be used a lot, yes. It’s polite, of course, to talk up the photographer after you’ve done that – you never know when your words of praise are enough to help them get a desirable opportunity.”
“You make it sound like being a patron,” I commented.
“In a way, it is.” Master Que turned to the back page of his paper and then turned it on its side to read the small red script in the Stop Press section before adding drily, “More immediately, it appears that villainy has been afoot. Apparently someone has been arrested for attempting to suborn a junior amateur competitor into fixing a match. It appears that the Illustrious Board of Referees was involved before the police.” He raised his eyebrows and added, “The gossip this morning should be interesting.”
Shortly after that I finished my breakfast and it was time to go on with the day.
If anything, the venue was busier than it had been the day before. There were more referees in evidence, scattered here and there in both the public and competitors-only areas of the building. More security personnel were around as well, both uniformed and in plain clothes. I asked the doorman on the competitors’ entrance about both.
“Something happened last night that’s got the Board of Referees all worked up,” he told us quietly, “not that they’re saying anything to us about it. The extra security’s not for that though, it’s because the Solar Emperor will be here later for the awards ceremony and demonstration match. Not that there was a demonstration match last year, the professional division winner was too sore and sorry to go out again.”
I just nodded. I knew, of course, that the national winner of the professional division would fight a demonstration bout against the Solar Emperor himself with a personal boon as the prize if the professional won, but I wasn’t letting myself think that far ahead. Not now. Not today. Not yet.
After we’d changed into dama and tabaki, we went to look at the draw for the next round. Naturally all the other fighters did too and that was where we heard that the incident that had the Referees so agitated seemed to have involved Rau Wang. The Storm Dragons triad was also mentioned quietly and in almost the same breath. Whatever had happened, it seemed that Rau Wang had gained face and the individual Storm Dragons involved had lost it. A very junior referee was also mentioned in a positive way, but although there was a lot of speculation all the solid information was about who had been seen speaking to whom and when. Rau Wang, for instance, was spending his morning accompanied by a senior retired referee and some sort of very competent policeman but wasn’t being allowed to speak to anyone else but his gi teacher.
It was all very interesting and I would have liked to have heard more but I was in one of the first bouts out and facing a Laosung named Kuo Ping Wu. My opponent was as tall as Qun Shun, our acquaintance from the train, and one of the thinnest people I’d ever met. Her white mask had taken the shape of a heron’s face with blue and silver detailing. I decided not to act like a fish or a frog and that proved wise because most of her attacks came from above and tried to lift me off my feet. The foot deep layer of water that was our sorcerous hazard didn’t really impede things when I responded by increasing my affinity with the ground, concrete over sandstone over basalt as it happens, without limiting my movement. I could tell that Kuo Ping Wu wasn’t quite sure why she couldn’t lift me as easily as she had been doing and to change things around she tried knocking and plucking me sideways. I didn’t enjoy the resulting water spray and I threw shadow balls at her, which knocked her a few inches backwards with every hit. She tried catching them up in her winds but they had no dust component for the wind to grab. After almost a dozen of my shadow balls had hit her, she seemed to have had enough of that and sent a blast of air straight at me. Well, I think it was meant to be air and it may have contained air, as well as the water it picked up, but it glowed a silvery blue and looked like a pure power strike to me. Not that I analysed it much at the time, I simply blocked with a basic shield move and a body length, olive sludge coloured oval split the attack blast around me. I was still hearing oohs and ahs from the audience when I took the friction out from under her feet and sent another flurry of shadow balls at her through my shield. Kuo Ping Wu wound up upright against the barrier between the audience and the ring looking annoyed and surprised but far more dignified than she would have if the barrier hadn’t been there. I had to apologise to the referee after we’d thanked him for his adjudication because he had to remind me to return my affinity for the ground to normal.
“That was interesting,” commented Master Que when I rejoined him. “I think you may have put your opponent’s nose seriously out of joint.”
“Because I won or because I stood up to her raw attack?” I had gathered from the newspaper comments on my own matches that raw energy attacks were considered powerful and difficult to deal with – I still considered that my use of them indicated a lack of control on my part.
“Possibly both. Also, you are less experienced than she is. I’m sure she expected that to count for a great deal.” He smiled at me and added, “So while you dry out, we’ll watch the rest of the round to find out who your next opponent will be.”
It turned out to be Chan Siew Bo.
Our sorcerous hazard turned out to be hail. I knew from my training with Master Que that it started out small and soft but increased in hardness and size as the bout went on so I ignored it at first and went for the shadow tentacles to restrict my opponent’s movement and thus his attack options. I managed to anchor both Chan Siew Bo’s legs and his left arm before he completed the move that had put me out of the ring in our first bout so, while his initial attack blew itself across the ring towards a segment that didn’t include me, I put a shield over me to keep the hail off. Then I pulled back the neck of his dama to let the hail fall down his neck and back. He glared at me and I smiled back – it was entirely up to him whether he protected himself or attacked me next. For my part, I had the tentacles lift him up but as I was about to start passing him, tentacle to tentacle, to the edge of the ring I felt tentacles grabbing me. Chan Siew Bo’s backup strategy seemed to be dust tentacles, which were very interesting in retrospect, but my reaction at the time was to throw him out of the ring while I still could. He got off a shadow blast in mid-air, dodging which took me out from under my shield and into the hail, but he was already out of the ring by then and I had won. I was in the finals.
We had a rest period then until after lunch. Not only did all the other adult classes need to finalise before the professional finals, the three adult open classes had to wait for the Solar Emperor to arrive and he was not due until then. I went for a quiet walk around the competitors' section of the venue before a lunch of rice paper rolls, clear soup, fruit and tea. Then I reviewed what Master Que and I knew of my opponent, Kwai Long Tsu.
The Solar Emperor arrived on time, wearing his mask, dama and tabaki with an open robe of state over his clothes. All six of us finalists lined up in front of him and paid our respects before he bowed to us in return. It seemed an odd time to reflect that, although he didn’t wear his mask when fulfilling his duties as the conscript President of the Republic, I didn’t actually know what he looked like. When the press published pictures of him, they were almost always one quarter face views or shots looking over his shoulder and the like. Then it was time to take the sidelines and watch the first two bouts.
The women’s amateur open championship went to Zheng Fang, a Laosung from the northwest coast. The men’s amateur open championship went to the full time allowed and was called on points, the judges awarding the championship to Gwei Ma who, this time, had beaten Zhang Wong by one point – apparently they really were both that good. Then it was time for me to face Kwai Long Tsu.
My opponent in the finals was a Chiangshi who’d been runner up in this competition twice in the last six years. He’d reached the semi-finals in three more of those years. If I’d been betting on this bout, I would have backed him for the win. My confidence was not helped when his opening move set the floor underneath us on fire.
I countered by putting a floor of shadow and dust over it, shadow to stand on and dust to put out the fire, or so I hoped. My ploy partly worked because most of the fire went out, but five geysering plumes of flame remained and I realised that these must be our sorcerous hazard. Kwai Long Tsu may have been thrilled, and I couldn’t blame him, but I wasn’t. No matter what I did, he was going to have access to fire so I decided to dodge his attacks and the other flames while aiming my actions at him. I started with a leg sweep while I still had a non-burning floor under me. Kwai Long Tsu dodged my attack and bent a geyser of flame to follow me. Putting a shadow shield between the flame and me stopped me getting burnt but the flame didn’t deflect as I thought it might, simply splashing against the shield so I couldn’t use it as an attack.
I tried shadow balls and his shield of borrowed flame stopped them. I tried tentacles, and then got rid of them as Kwai Long Tsu invaded them with flame and started controlling them. I used my little solid darts and they penetrated his shield like a treat. He actually yelped in surprise when the first volley hit him. After that I aimed the volleys at his feet because, of course, I wanted him out of the ring. He danced backwards the first few times and then lashed at me with borrowed fire. My dodge worked well, only the knuckles of my right hand got burnt and then only a little, and I kept up the darts.
Kwai Long Tsu overlaid my section of the shadow floor with a fire floor and I sent off one more volley of darts before putting a second shield under my feet to stop my tabaki smoking. It was at that point, surrounded by flames, that I realised that Kwai Long Tsu was trying to force me to concede rather than force me out of the ring. My shadow floor was normally a set and forget action, costing me little to sustain in the way of attention but it was doing me no good at the moment so I dropped it.
I certainly didn’t expect things to explode.
Kwai Long Tsu was caught in some sort of feedback backblast and it sent him up towards the ceiling and backwards, while my shields protected me from rather more radiant heat than I could enjoy. Those five sorcerous geysers were being chaotically agitated and when I realised that Kwai Long Tsu was falling limply towards one I put a spherical shield around him – just before it erupted rather spectacularly all over him. I’d meant the shield to be a shadow one but it was, in fact, pure clear olive sludge coloured energy. Having my shield around him meant that I could slow my opponent’s fall and control the direction of his descent, so carefully depositing him in front of the medical officer but outside the ring was within the rules – certainly the referee thought so because he declared me the winner. I bowed to the referee, the judges, my opponent and the Solar Emperor then made my way carefully out of the ring, using small flat shields like stepping stones. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why the Solar Emperor and the judges had been on their feet, I was just glad that I wasn’t going to have to clean up the mess that was the ring.
“I’ve never seen that before,” was Master Que’s comment when I rejoined him. “I suspect it was some sort of interaction between the two fire floors in contact with each other and the sorcerous hazard. Two fire floors together, even from the same fighter, don’t do that. You did well to rescue him, but the judges and the Solar Emperor were all about to act.”
“Were they?” I was surprised. “I didn’t see them. I was rather…focused. Besides, it seemed like I had plenty of time.”
Master Que simply raised his eyebrows at me and said, “The medical officer seems to have finished looking at your opponent, we should get your burns looked at.”
I looked at my right hand and admired the row of little blisters that had raised along my knuckles. “We should,” I agreed. “Things still seem a bit distant too. Is that adrenaline or something else?”
“Probably adrenaline, but we’ll get you checked,” promised Master Que. Then he added, “You do realise that you just won the national championship, don’t you?”
I blinked and laughed, “That wasn’t at the front of my mind, I admit. Do I wear the championship belt with my dama before I have my professional name?”
“I’ll have to check the protocol,” admitted Master Que as he steered me gently to the medical officer.
The medical officer treated my knuckles, tsked over some areas of redness that didn’t quite require treatment and pronounced me clear of concussion and shock. He was also able to assure me that Kwai Long Tsu would be fine, after at least a night in hospital. Apparently he was going to have to write the medical aspects of the bout up for the Board of Referees and he assured me that, from his point of view, my actions had saved Kwai Long Tsu from much more serious injury.
Then there was the presentation ceremony, which was a bit odd from my point of view because I still seemed to have occasional moments of the slow-motion effect I’d felt after the explosion in the finals bout. The sudden moments when everything seemed to happen slowly and with incredible clarity were quite disconcerting. Then it was my turn and the Solar Emperor himself was presenting me with both the prize purse and the championship belt, and he was speaking to me. He finished, “Would you care for a match between the two of us now, Student of Shui Tzu Dan?”
I bowed and answered, “If you have the time and inclination, I would be grateful for the lesson, O Celestial Gift.”
“Now, that’s an interesting set of assumptions,” I could almost hear a smile in his voice as he handed the robe of state to one of his attendants, “and do you know how long it’s been since anyone called me that?”
“I’m reading Lady Wen Cho,” I admitted.
“That would explain it,” he answered gravely. “Now, if you can hand your prize purse to your teacher, we can go to the ring.”
I made haste to hand my winnings off to Master Que who took the opportunity to mutter, “I’m sorry I can’t offer you much advice on this fight. My experience is out of date - my first two bouts were against his previous incarnation, and my last bout against him was fifteen years ago. He’s Qianting, because the Solar Emperor always is, but I can’t predict what he’ll do with all those lifetimes of experience behind him. Good luck.”
I nodded and went to join my opponent in saluting the referee of our match.
Our sorcerous hazard was a gravity ball. Effectively it changed the pull of gravity over a third of the ring so that instead of pulling downwards, gravity pulled towards the ball which sat outside the boundary of the ring. It was annoying but relatively easy to avoid, although doing so limited how much of the ring we could use. We both opened by trying to take control of the ring’s floor with our own floors and so wound up with an interleaved floor of shadow and light that we were both trying to tilt so that our opponent slid towards the gravity ball. It was actually rather fun, even when we started throwing shadow and light balls at each other. The Solar Emperor sent a wave of light at me with a leg sweep and I retaliated with a leg sweep of my own and then there was a distinct ‘click’ feeling in the gi that didn’t come from either of us.
The gravity ball disappeared from its position on my left and reappeared behind my opponent. Frankly, it no longer looked like a gravity ball because it was both more intense and a slightly different colour. I could hear shouting from outside the ring but the one word I could hear clearly was ‘point’. The Solar Emperor began to slide backwards faster than I would have expected for a gravity ball and I realised that I was probably looking at a gravity point – a much more dangerous artefact that wasn’t on the list of hazards. I speculated briefly that the clean-up of the ring following my last bout hadn’t been as thorough as it should have been and then I realised that my opponent’s efforts to stop himself sliding towards what was probably certain death weren’t working. If he died, then I would win by default.
I erected a wall of earth to his shoulder height behind him and in front of the gravity point. It stopped him but he was still being pulled backwards. I put foot and hand holds in the shadow and actual floors in front of him. “Can you crawl?” He nodded in response to my question and dropped to his hands and knees. I lengthened the trail of holds in front of him and hoped that the gravity point wouldn’t move again before we were both safe. He was able to move faster the further he got away from the hazard and soon the Solar Emperor was taking my hand so I could help him to his feet.
“Thank you.” That was heartfelt, I could tell, then he said more loudly, “I concede!”
That hadn’t occurred to me. Surprised, I asked, “But why?”
“Because I would have died if you hadn’t intervened. That would have meant that you won, so why did you help me?”
“Winning because you died would have taken all the fun out of it,” I stated the self-evident truth.
“Some fighters wouldn’t care about that,” he told me.
“Ah, O Celestial Gift,” so I might have interrupted the Solar Emperor, “could we please move away from here?”
“Excellent point.” We left the ring together and I realised that there was something of a panic among the referees. As soon as we’d exited the ring extra shields were put in place and more things were done to the ring by what seemed to be rather senior officials. The front rows of seats were being evacuated and we retreated to the podium to get out of the way.
“I owe you a boon, Student of Shui Tzu Dan,” the Solar Emperor was looking at what was going on in and around the ring as he spoke, but then he turned to me and asked, “so, what do you want?”
A little shamefaced, I confessed, “I don’t know. I had something in mind to ask for if I actually got to this stage, but I received that a few days ago and now I don’t know what to ask for.”
“Money or position are popular,” he observed.
“I wouldn’t know how much to ask for,” I confessed. “I’m only just getting used to how much I can earn and what I can do with it. As for a position, well what could I ask for that I wouldn’t make a botch of? It doesn’t seem sensible to ask for something you’d have to take away again in very short order.”
He laughed. “There are actually options that could deal with that, particularly if you seriously wanted a career.”
I asked, “Do I have to make up my mind right now? Could I sort of hang on to my request until something comes up?”
The Solar Emperor glanced again at the ring before speaking. “That’s a very sensible idea if you don’t know what you want or don’t want anything at the moment. The details can be worked out later but right now, if you’ll excuse me, I should go consult on this little problem.” He stepped down towards the ring again then turned and added, “I know the press will want to speak to you but I recommend that you shower and change first – it will help you get your mind together." Then he was gone back into the knots of officials consulting around the misfunctioning sorcerous hazard.
When I found him, Master Que agreed with the advice that the Solar Emperor had given me and ushered me back to my assigned change room. “Put your blacks on after you shower,” he told me, “and put your mask back on to be interviewed. As you are still a student that is not only perfectly proper but the proper way to handle the matter. You did very well you know.” He gave me a funny lopsided smile. “I mention it because sometimes you don’t seem to realise these things.”
“Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’ll go mesmerise the press while you shower,” Master Que replied. “Come to where they put the bout draws up when you’re done – we should be easy to find from there.”
He went off to beguile the press, leaving me to lock the door behind him and get myself clean. I did spend a lot of that shower wondering what Master Que was going to say to the reporters, and although I was confident that he wouldn’t say anything about me that would embarrass me, I did wonder what he might say about himself. Some of my imaginings might have induced me to scrub faster.
There weren’t many people in the corridors when I emerged, dressed in my blacks and mask in hand, after I’d had my shower. I found out later that most of the professional fighters were queuing to put their details down to get a copy of the eventual report into the day’s mishaps. I received congratulations from only the people who knew me as Master Que’s student with my mask off, and I supposed that to everyone else I was just a young woman carrying a mask. Rau Wang and I exchanged congratulations because he’d come second in his division, and he introduced me to a young foreign man accompanying him and Master Lao. Surprisingly this straw-haired young man, named Ha Ri, both spoke our language with only an accent that marked him as coming from the capital and wore the robes of a junior assistant referee. It was Ha Ri who apologised very gracefully to me that they couldn’t stay but were expected at a meeting and bore the other two off. My mother would have been proud of his manners if one of my brothers had them.
The next person I ran into wasn’t someone I knew but he greeted me with a bow and asked, “Excuse me, but you are the Student of Shui Tzu Dan, aren’t you?”
I bowed in return and, because he looked old enough to be my father, I answered, “I am, sir. How may I help you?” The worry or concentration crease between his eyes may have made him look older than he was.
“You’re a much younger lady than I assumed,” he said, “and that makes this a little more awkward than I had expected.” I swear the poor man blushed, he was only half a head taller than me and I could see the sudden flush continuing down his neck to under his blacks. “I much admired your performance in the competition today and I would like to give you these as a token of my admiration and esteem.” He held out a necklace of blue beads.
It didn’t occur to me to ask why he had a string of beads in his pocket to hand out to a female gi fighter he’d never met before, just as it didn’t occur to me to wonder how someone who wasn’t a fighter or a tournament official had gotten into these corridors. Because he seemed nice enough, his voice was vaguely familiar from somewhere and he was so patently uncomfortable because I wasn’t what he had, for some reason, thought, I simply said, “Thank you,” and held out my hand. When he dropped the beads into my hand, I took a closer look at them and said, “These are lovely!” because they were, each with a tiny, blue cornflower somehow formed inside them. I looked at my benefactor again and asked, “May I know your name, sir?”
“It wouldn’t mean anything to you,” he assured me with a wave of his hand, apparently beginning to regain his composure, “but I am very glad that you like the beads.” He bowed again and added, “I’m afraid I need to go now. Thank you for the few moments of your time.” Then he went, with a certain grace or style that made me reconsider whether he might be a gi fighter.
Then I remembered that I was supposed to be somewhere else and put my new beads into my pocket before I hurried on to where Master Que and the press were waiting for me.
I did remember to put my mask on before I entered the room and from their questions I think some of the reporters were disappointed that there wasn’t to be any big official reveal of my personal name or face. Aside from that, there were quite a lot of questions that I was happy to let Master Que answer – particularly the ones where I had to defer to him anyway. All in all, it was one of the most uncomfortable half hours of my life up until that point, including the period outside the headmaster’s office after I hit Sun Mat, and I was very happy for it to be over.
Later, when we were back at the hotel but before we went out to dinner, I showed the blue beads to Master Que and explained where they’d come from.
“Cornflower beads?” He didn’t quite sniff. “Ever since the prediction about the Cornflower Empress coming to be the Solar Emperor’s consort was made public, every man who can afford a cheap string of glass beads has been gifting them as a romantic shorthand. This fellow would have been more impressive if he’d showed more imagination.” I felt a little hurt at Master Que’s assessment of my corridor acquaintance, no wonder he’d been embarrassed, and it may have shown in my face because Master Que took a closer look at the beads. When he spoke again, his tone was quite different, “These, on the other hand, aren’t cheap knockoffs. Kao Tse Mu Glassworks, if I’m any judge. You could sell these for more than a few taels.”
“No, thank you.” I reached out and took them back. “They were a gift to me from my very first admirer. I intend to keep them.” I sighed. “Poor man, I really didn’t understand what he was trying to say, did I?”
This is now followed by The Morning After My Victory.