I had expected a small dinner, perhaps in a dumpling bar on Shen Mu Street, but other people had other ideas and they prevailed. Master Que and I wound up eating with a group of gi fighters, someone’s manager, a sponsor’s representative and a couple of reporters, all of whom we’d run into when we’d gone to call on Kwai Long Tsu in the hospital. My opponent wasn’t being permitted visitors but we were able to leave the flowers and sweets we’d brought as gifts to be sent through to him in the ward.The dinner party sort of coalesced around us from other visitors for Kwai Long Tsu who were also being turned away, and we wound up at a popular shared table establishment called The Rice Den.
We occupied all of one of their long tables and I started by ordering us multiple plates of all the entrees on the menu – I knew enough to know that tonight should be on me and frankly, I could have been feeding more people at a more expensive place than The Rice Den. I think we got at least two dishes from each area of the mains menu and I know that there were a couple of mountains of rice. I had a three way discussion with the sports reporter Chang Ma and the gi fighter Foo Sung Hu about gi floors and what you could do with them while we demolished the main meal. There were red bean cakes and fried rice after that and the sponsor’s representative, a lady named Deng Lai, explained her employer’s business and sponsorship program to me while we ate. She seemed genuinely disappointed when I told her that I would be based out of Xiamtian for the next few years; her company only operated in the eastern provinces and Wugao is definitely not an eastern province. We rotated again after that and I spent some time speaking with the other reporter, Wu Zheng of the Daily Morning Herald, who was very interested in what I’d requested as my boon.
“Mr Wu, why?” I was confused. “You write about politics; my father reads paragraphs of yours out at the breakfast table.”
“On one level,” he told me solemnly, “everything the Solar Emperor does, including getting out of bed in the morning, is political. Attending the finals of the national gi tournament and fighting the winner is a political act. Do you have any idea how the former occupying powers would probably react if they realised what gi really is?”
“Possibly badly? Depending on whether they think they ought to be the boss of us still?” I’d specialised in Earth Sciences at secondary school, not Modern Studies, and although geography links into political science, they don’t extend the secondary school Earth Sciences curriculum that far.
“Youthfully worded but accurate,” Mr Wu smiled. “Their excuse for invading us was to ‘save us from superstition’ so it might be best if we can give them reasons to ignore that we’ve conscripted the Solar Emperor into being permanent President of the Republic and the practice of sorcery is more widespread than ever before in our history.”
“Would they invade us again?” I was interested to hear his views. “I mean, our technology levels are almost the same as theirs and there are a few things we do better. Our population is higher too, the only place that comes close is Xiyindu.”
“Parts of Shuangzhou come close in density,” he assured me with a wry smile, “but yes, none of the major Northern nations could successfully invade us on their own. It would have to be a coalition, if invasion was their aim.”
“What would their aim be besides invasion?” I was picking at the crunchy noodles that the deep fried and pumpkin-coated red bean cakes had been served on.
“Anletere, Ruhzhe and Tuanguo all have sufficient weapons of mass destruction to ensure not only their mutual annihilation but everyone else’s as well.” I nodded as Mr Wu spoke. I may not have done much Modern Studies but for some things you just had to read the foreign news section of the newspaper. “If we scared any of them enough, they might use those on us instead of keeping them to control each other.”
“It’s not like we’d try to invade them,” I answered, “and as far as I know, we have no interest in damaging them.”
“There are elements,” commented Mr Wu, “who think we should take action to restore the face we lost when the Northern nations conquered us or to avenge those who died in the invasion or the early occupation.”
“But they didn’t win, despite all that,” I objected. “They didn’t turn us into them.”
“On the other hand, we’re not who we used to be either,” pointed out Mr Wu. “Before the invasion, you would have been an apprentice sorcerer and not a gi fighter.”
Thinking of my father, I added, “Or I might have been a scholar’s wife.”
“Instead of a young woman who’s received a boon from the Solar Emperor,” Mr Wu smiled. “So, what did you ask for?”
I laughed. “You are very persistent, sir.” I shrugged and added, “I haven’t asked for anything yet. I’ve just received the thing I was going to ask for if I won through other means. The Heavenly Gift has graciously allowed me to hold on to my request until I know what I want.”
Mr Wu’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “I’m impressed that you’re taking the time to think about it,” he said. “A lot of people would have asked for the first thing that came to mind.”
“A lot of people would have had a list of things to ask for,” I pointed out. “I felt that assuming I’d do well was presumptuous and likely to jinx me.” I smiled and added, “So, enough about me, Mr Wu. It must be your turn to answer a question now.”
“I suppose so.” He was suddenly cautious.
“You’re a political reporter,” he nodded, “so, why did you go to see Kwai Long Tsu tonight?”
I thought he looked relieved. “He and I went through primary and secondary school together,” Mr Wu answered. “How could I not go?”
The party broke up soon after. The journalists had to go back to their offices and write something to meet their printing deadlines, while at much the same time I began to feel really tired. Master Que and the other, older, gi fighters seemed to think that this was perfectly normal so I left the restaurant, after paying the bill for us all, to a little gentle ribbing. Back at the hotel, I took off my clothes, poured myself into bed and went to sleep thinking I’d have a shower in the morning.
I woke in the morning when the maid came in to clean my room. We apologised profusely to each other, she agreed to come back in a quarter of an hour, then I grabbed some clean clothes and jumped under the shower. I was out, dried off and dressed by the time she came back and it wasn’t until I pressed a small tip on her and her co-worker, for the inconvenience, that I wondered why Master Que had let me sleep in so long. He wasn’t in his room, the door was open while the maids worked displaying a clear absence of Master Que in there, and he wasn’t in the lobby either. The restaurant where breakfast was served was closed, so I asked at the front desk whether there were any messages for me. There weren’t.
As such. According to the desk clerk, Master Que had gone out again after seeing me to my room but he’d left something in the hotel safe before he’d gone and said that either he or I might withdraw it. The something turned out to be my prize purse from the gi tournament. I withdrew it from the safe, put it in the bag where I had my purse, wallet and reading books, and went straight to the nearest branch of my bank. It’s amazing how attentive bank staff are when you’re depositing large denomination gold taels. Possibly they were buying time to check my credentials and police reports, but I spent twenty minutes having tea, accompanied by little red bean cakes and tiny almond biscuits, with the manager while my deposit was processed. Everything must have checked out because the money went into my account and both the manager and the chief teller saw me to the door when I left. I thought that the pair of business men sitting in the reception area outside the manager’s office looked surprised when I emerged from said office and was ushered so tenderly through the conclusion of the depositing process.
My business with the bank concluded, and the edge off my hunger, I decided that the next thing I should do was go, pay my respects to Master Chu and thank him for the use of his practice room. We had paid him for that room, of course, but politeness costs nothing and I hoped to be in a position to need to rent his rooms again in future years, so remaining in his good graces could be advantageous. Besides, I liked Master Chu and he might know where Master Que was, or had been.
Master Chu’s gi school had a late morning quiet to it when I arrived. The early morning classes where well over and the students were at work, getting ready to return to school, preparing for the New Year celebrations or simply off enjoying one of the last days of the school holidays. The cleaning lady, Madam Jiao, directed me to Master Chu’s office where that gentleman was drinking tea. When I bowed he returned it without rising and waved me to a seat.
“What may I do for you, Miss Sung?” He sounded a little tireder than usual. “Please forgive me for not offering you some of this tea. It’s a medicinal blend – I seem to have helped your teacher celebrate your win a little too enthusiastically last night.”
“I hope it helps alleviate your symptoms, Master Chu.” Now I looked at him more closely, he did look as if he might have a headache. “I came by to thank you for the use of your rooms and your other support during my training leading up to the national tournament.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “You paid me for the room. Anything else was incidental, and you helped me prove several points to some of my more obstreperous students.” He sipped his tea again and while he topped up his cup I thought I caught a whiff of rhubarb and liquorice. “You have no idea how much I’m going to enjoy rubbing it in to some of my more arrogant students that you won the nationals.” He smiled beatifically. “So many rub points: no amateur tournament history; young; first year in competition; female; and a different gi school. I probably shouldn’t, but I will enjoy it.”
“Sir, if they are so difficult, may I ask why you keep them as students?” I hoped I wasn’t prying too much.
Master Chu smile at me again. “I’ve known some of them since they were six and I have a fondness as well as an exasperation with them. Also, I still think that I can help them become better people.” He sipped some more tea. “That’s not what you came here to ask though, was it?”
“No,” I admitted. “I did wonder if you might know where Master Que is. He wasn’t at the hotel when I woke up and he didn’t leave me a message.”
“Ah,” Master Chu drank some more tea and topped up his cup again. “I last saw him at about three this morning outside my house. He turned down my offer of a spare bed and headed off in the direction of Shandong – I believe he was going to try and find a little bar he last visited thirteen or fourteen years ago. I don’t think he mentioned the name to me.”
“Thank you,” I bowed to him. “He’s probably back at the hotel by now, but I will follow that up if he’s not been there when I return.”
“That might be wise,” Master Chu put down his tea and bowed in return. “I recommend getting yourself some lunch first. Did you actually have breakfast this morning?”
“I slept in too late for that,” I confessed, “but I will go and eat now.”
“Good girl,” Master Chu smiled again. “I look forward to following your career in the future, Miss Sung.” When I left the room, he was already sipping on the tea again.
I took myself to Shen Mu Street and strolled along it, looking for a place to eat lunch. There were, in fact, a lot of places to eat on Shen Mu Street but I needed one that had room for me and most of Shen Mu Street had lines out the door. On my second pass I realised that most of the people congregating on the footpath were in groups. I also saw one apparently nameless establishment with a dark green and bamboo frontage that had a single, empty table tucked into a window-front corner behind a large, occupied group table, so I walked up to the staff member at the entrance and asked if they had any tables for one available.
“We do.” He gave me an easy, professional smile. “If I may be delicate, miss, we only offer a set lunch menu and you may be unpleasantly surprised at the cost.”
I considered for a moment and then, because I had won the national open professional gi tournament the night before and I still had quite a lot of the money we’d decided I could afford for the celebratory dinner left in my wallet, I said, “Why don’t we see if I can pay for the meal before I eat? That way we’ll both know where we stand.”
It was the host’s turn to pause briefly, and then he said, “Certainly. That would be an acceptable solution. If you would care to step over to the till, miss, that will be eighty standard taels.”
The man had been right, it was a lot of money for lunch, but instead of being surprised I looked around the restaurant and paid attention to the details of staffing and decor, plus what I could see of the food. Frankly, this was the sort of place Master Que and I sometimes went for dinner if we were having an extravagant meal – excellent food and service plus a certain exclusivity, which was why we usually went to those places early in the evening before the rush started. “Certainly,” I fished my wallet out of my bag. “That is the option without alcohol, isn’t it?”
“All drinks are extra, miss.” He watched me pay the cashier and then said, “Your table is this way.” It was the table in the window, tucked in behind the large, boisterous group I had seen from the street. The host helped me into my seat, arranged a second chair for me to put my bag on and finished with, “I hope you enjoy your meal, miss.”
“Thank you, so do I.” I smiled back at him and waited for someone to come and take my drink order, and the food, of course.
The drinks waitress was perfectly happy to steer me in the direction of a tea that would go well with the meal and I ordered a pot of Quimong Red Dragon First Growth. It was, frankly, the sort of tea I’d heard of but never had because it was so expensive. The occupants of the large table between me and the rest of the restaurant were drinking alcohol and one of them came close to wearing my tea when he grabbed the drinks waitress’ arm as she returned with my order. My initial and disinterested impression was that the man who did it was too well dressed to be behaving so badly. I also thought it would have served him right if he had worn my tea.
I was sipping on the tea, and enjoying it very much, when the waiter came and set up my table for the first course. As well as setting my place for a soup, he gave me a printed menu that listed six courses and told me that I was going to have the lunch degustation menu at the Imperial Bamboo Grove. The name rang some vague bells, but I assumed that was because I’d heard Master Que or one of the restaurateurs he was in silent partnership with mention it. The soup was small, being the first of six courses, and delicious.
The second course was three mini-dumplings carefully arranged on a bicoloured bed of shredded raw vegetables with a chilli based dipping sauce. As my waiter was about to place it in front of me, the closest member of the group sitting in front of me turned around and tried to take it from his hand, despite the fact that another two waiters were serving his table with a noodle dish. He seemed quite surprised to be told that my plate wasn’t for him, and turned back to his friends with what I thought was an odd look and a muttered comment that I didn’t catch. There was certainly no need for his chair to move back far enough to hit my table when he turned to talk to one of his companions, even if the tables were close. When it happened a second time, as I was about to eat the third of my tiny, inhalable dumplings, I was fairly certain it was deliberate. When he did it for the third time, almost spilling my tea, I caught a look that I was fairly sure was daring me to complain about his behaviour. I thought about why he might want me to complain and decided that perhaps I shouldn’t give him what he wanted. Instead I waited for him to reposition his chair so that he could eat properly from his plate and then increased the affinity of the chair to the ground, something I could do quietly with my hands under my table and without making a fuss. He could certainly try to move that chair again, but I doubted that it would work.
My table was cleared without trouble and I was realising how much I liked Quimong Red Dragon First Growth when my third course, a very swish plate of spring rolls with an idiosyncratic sauce, was served. My ‘friend’ at the group table tried again to intercept the plate and found that his chair wouldn’t move. I thanked the waiter for bringing my food and was munching my way through the second of my deep-fried parcels of pork, prawn and vegetable goodness when I became aware of a stir on the far side of the group table. When I looked up I could see the man sitting opposite my ‘friend’ was splattered with what looked like rice. Worse, so was the lady in a beautiful dark green silk jacket beyond him at another table. A glance around the room told me that the host was moving towards the group table and a large figure was coming out of the kitchen to join him but that they weren’t going to be in time to stop the first retaliation I could see being loaded on to a spoon opposite me. I made some more movements out of sight under the table. A spoonful of food flew across the table from opposite me, my ‘friend’ dodged to our mutual left, the food sailed on – and stopped on my shield where it slid slowly downwards to the table.
The room went quiet.
The host and the large gentleman from the kitchen, I swear he was large enough to give rise to stories of giants, stopped still. I felt like everyone in the room was looking at me, possibly because people had turned around to see what was going on.
The last person to turn around was my ‘friend.’ He looked me up and down through the dripping mess on my shield that I saw no reason to drop yet and when he spoke, his voice dripped sarcasm, “Who do think you are, kid? The Student of Shui Tzu Dan? Don’t you know who we are?” He and some of his companions laughed at his witticism.
I waited till the laughing stopped before I answered, “Yes, as it happens, I am. And I see no reason to care who you are – your manners are such that I do not care to pursue the acquaintance, for any reason.”
One of his companions stood, bowed a little off-kilter and said, “Congratulations on your win! You should join us, we’re gi fighters too!”
“Thank you, but no thank you,” I answered firmly.
From beyond their table the host added, “Aside from anything else, you gentlemen are about to leave. Your bill is being readied as we speak.”
“But we haven’t finished eating yet.” The standing man was indignant and swaying slightly on his feet. “We’re paying customers you know!”
“Sir, our customers do not throw food around and you have not yet paid.” The host was implacable. “I believe everyone will be happier if you do pay now, and leave. Certainly there other establishments with laxer behaviour requirements within easy walking distance of here.”
My ‘friend’ retorted, “My parents will hear about this and they’ll never darken your doorstep again!”
“We would miss them, Mr Kwang,” the host admitted before adding, “and I would be happy to discuss the behaviour of you and your friends today with them.” The cashier came over and handed him a bill folder which the host placed on the table. “Your account, gentlemen.”
The seated man beside whom the bill had been placed opened it up and glanced at it. “This is for too many people, there are only eight of us not twelve!”
“You are, by way of apology for ruining their enjoyment of their meal, also paying for the meals of the group Mr Kwang sprayed with his food.” As the host spoke the giant from the kitchen changed his stance slightly. The effect was quite menacing for such a subtle movement.
“Kwang Jie, you should pay for those,” the man with the bill in front of him had pulled out a pencil and was doing some calculations, “and as for the rest of us – Celestial Messengers, have we really had that much to drink?” He ran his pencil down the bill while his lips moved before saying, “Yes we have. So that’s four hundred and forty taels for Kwang Jie and two hundred taels for each of the rest of us.”
I was not alone in watching this fascinating piece of street theatre and I for one was fascinated by how the giant from the kitchen had only implied cracking his knuckles.
“I’m not paying that!” My ‘friend’ Kwang Jie was outraged indignation. He tried to push his chair back so he could stand up, but of course it wouldn’t move.
I could see that the host was about to speak again but the man in the same party as the lady with the green silk jacket with his back to their table turned around for the first time that I’d been able to see and said sharply, “Kwang Jie, the staff here may not speak to your parents but I intend to call your father to my office when I return there. Pay up, shut up and leave with a little dignity. I will expect to hear from Madam Jochen that you have formally apologised to her, when you are sober.” I didn’t recognise the gentleman, who was older than my father and probably older than Master Que given the distinguished silvering of his hair at his temples, but from their expressions at least some of those at the group table did.
I removed the chair’s increased affinity with the ground so that this time when Kwang Jie tried to stand up he could. Then he bowed more deeply than I would have expected, “Mr Sheng, I had no idea-.”
Mr Sheng cut him off with a curt, “That shouldn’t have mattered. We both know your parents expect better of you than this.”
Kwang Jie bowed to him again and then pulled out his wallet to lay his tael notes on the table. His friends followed suit and they were gone in under five minutes. It took the staff less than five minutes more to clean off their tables and rearrange them into four separate smaller settings. The last thing done before new customers were shown to their seats was cleaning up the rice that had been thrown in my direction – it was actually quite interesting to change the shape of my shield to have the residue on it go straight into the cleaning bucket.
My final two courses passed without incident. The noodle dish was something interesting involving dried seafood and the dish that followed was beef in vegetables and sauce served on rice. It confirmed my opinion that Kwang Jie was an idiot because the rice was impregnated with that wonderful sauce and he’d wasted it…
When I was done, I went to pay for my tea and found that they’d waived the cost ‘because of the earlier unpleasantness.’ I thanked them for their consideration, and left the cost of my tea as a combined tip for the floor staff.
Then I made my way back to the hotel to see if Master Que had returned. If he hadn’t, I could always ask directions to Shandong and go looking.
This is now followed by In Which It Is Not All About Me.