There were lion dancers outside the hotel when I returned. It was the beginning of the season for them, this being only three days before New Year, however it was odd to have two different groups of lion dancers performing before the one establishment at the same time. Certainly a sensible business hotel’s management wouldn’t go to the extravagance of having their premises purified for the New Year twice and doing both purifications at the same time breached all sorts of etiquette – the family of one of my classmates had been heavily into these things and I’d picked up a lot of little details over the years. I spotted the hotel’s desk manager on the steps in conversation with two men who looked like they probably ran the lion dance teams. In fact, it looked to me like the manager was remonstrating with them. They, in turn, were indicating a short man who was wearing an open knee-length orange robe over his blacks, standing practically under the two sets of dragon dancers, one with a blue lion and the other with a black one, and appeared to be egging both teams on.
I had to look twice to realise that it was Master Que.
Then I did the only safe thing under the circumstances – I stood back and watched.
There were two lettuces suspended above the door of the hotel, both of them high enough to be a challenge to a man standing on another’s shoulders. They appeared to be growing out of the building and I suspected Master Que was responsible for fixing them there. Fortunately for everyone the two teams of drummers had synchronised their beats so although we had double the usual volume, onlookers and dancers weren’t being confused by a perceived syncopation. As it was, the two teams were moving in unison but doing different steps, so as one team went up the other went down or lunged forward. The sight was quite confusing enough and in the middle of it all was Master Que doing his own little set of steps to the drum beats as he waved and gesticulated at the lion dancers.
I realized after I’d been watching this spectacle for a good minute that I could feel the levels of the energy I normally associated with Master Que performing gi moves slowly rising. After another minute I was quite certain of it and I started to consider why this was happening because what Master Que was doing didn’t look like any gi moves I knew. Sensing gi is difficult to explain to someone who can’t and the best I can come is that it’s like putting your hand on someone’s creaky joint as they move it and ‘hearing’ the creaks through your hand, only for me the perceived sense is a weird amalgam of hearing and smell while I receive the information through a combination of things that include my proprioceptors and possibly that sense that lets some people know the magnetic directions. What I was sensing was a slow, steady rise in the gi energy levels in a circle centred on Master Que. It had a definite border and I was beginning to perceive a pattern inside the circle as well.
It was so fascinating to examine that I lost all sense of where I was, and possibly time as well, so that I was completely surprised when someone put his hand on my shoulder and said, in the tone of someone repeating himself, “Miss Sung, are you all right?”
I shook myself for a moment as I came back into the present and turned to see who was speaking to me. On finding that it was the head of the committee tasked with investigating the previous day’s irregularities in the ring and two of his associates, I bowed. “I’m sorry, sirs. I’m afraid that I got caught up trying to work out what my gi teacher is doing.” I indicated Master Que in his orange over-robe, the lion dancers, and the drummers.
The tall, thin, bald man looked over at the spectacle on the hotel steps. “Quite extraordinary,” he agreed drily. “What did you conclude?”
“That I have no idea what he’s up to,” I answered frankly. “He’s doing something with the gi energies but it’s happening quite slowly, and those moves aren’t anything I’ve seen before.”
The three gentlemen from the Illustrious Board of Referees all took another, harder look in Master Que’s direction. The one with his long, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail asked, “Is he doing a ritual?”
I turned to him and asked, “A ritual?” My voice came out smaller and much more frightened than I would have liked. “In the middle of the capital?”
“Not all rituals are destructive,” the referee with the ponytail assured me. “Just the ones people tell stories about.”
“Even so,” said the tall man, “I think it behoves us to do what we came here to do quickly, just in case…”
“Definitely,” agreed the third referee, a man wearing wire-rimmed glasses. “We don’t want a repeat of last night’s events, if we can help it.”
“What did you come here to do, gentlemen? If I might ask,” I added.
“It occurred to me, at about three o’clock this morning,” admitted the tall man, “that the only things in the ring during your last competitive bout yesterday that weren’t cleansed after that explosion, were you and your opponent. Please forgive me for not introducing myself, I am Li Bao, and these are my colleagues Tseng Tung,” he indicated the ponytailed man, “and Yu Fong,” and the round man with glasses bowed. “We’ve already been to examine your opponent, Kwai Long Tsu.”
“I became aware of you yesterday, sir,” I bowed again, “and it is an honour to meet you and your colleagues. May I ask what you found?” It was worrying to think that I might have inadvertently been the cause of the Solar Emperor’s near demise in our bout.
“He had ‘tags’ of elements from the sorcerous hazard you faced attached to his ambit,” answered Li Bao. “Consequently, we have a theory.”
“A theory?” I looked from one referee to another but they didn’t seem inclined to add anything to what they’d already said, so I asked, “Should I know what Kwai Long Tsu’s ambit is?”
“Your ambit is your zone of influence beyond your personal energy,” answered Yu Fong. “It’s not spoken of much these days but if you read or hear a story about an old time sorcerer being attended by unseen servants, then they probably had a few energy constructs designed to perform useful tasks attached to their ambit.”
“By energy constructs,” put in Tseng Tung, “my learned colleague means spells. We have an ongoing discussion about whether ‘spell’ is a superstitious term or a useful technical expression. We may come to an agreement on the subject someday.”
“So I may have transferred something from the fire geysers in my last competitive bout to the gravity ball in the exhibition match?” I thought back to the ‘click’ I’d felt in the gi as the gravity ball had changed. “Perhaps a timing or transformation element? If that’s so, shouldn’t I have felt something?”
“Very few people give the ambit any thought at all these days,” replied Yu Fong consolingly.
Li Bao added, “I, myself, am receiving a crash course on the subject and the referees who did the clean-up yesterday probably know as much about one’s ambit as I did before this investigation began. Apparently one of the advantages of attaching things there is that they aren’t obvious unless you go looking for them.”
“So there could still be something attached to me?” I found this slightly worrying.
“Probably not,” Yu Fong said earnestly. “We believe that if you had any tags attached to you, then the issues in the exhibition match occurred because the tags had a greater affinity for the sorcerous hazard than they did for your ambit.”
“Even so, gentlemen,” the more he said, the more nervous I was getting, “assuming that I still have any tags attached to my ambit, would you care to give me an opinion on their likely affinity to a ritual, as opposed to my ambit.” The four of us took another look at Master Que who was carrying on with whatever it was he was doing. “I think I would really like you to check my ambit for me, immediately.”
“I would have suggested somewhere more private,” said Li Bao, “but I fear that your point may be well made, Miss Sung. We should get this done as quickly as possible in case there is the possibility of an interaction.”
Thus I found myself having my gi energies thoroughly examined on a pavement in the middle of a crowd gathered to look at what appeared to be an odd piece of street theatre. The three referees weren’t rude about it but they certainly made sure that they had space around me to work – I’m not even sure if the onlookers realised that they’d been moved aside. I found being examined a most peculiar sensation when viewed through the gi energies; it was a bit like having my hair looked through by a scent of tea smoke, an absent minded whistle through the teeth and a smell of crushed pine needles. Not unpleasant but certainly odd. The entire process took almost five minutes, during which Master Que continued to perform what I was now fairly certain must be a ritual and raise the energy levels in the gi circle he’d created.
Finally, Tseng Tung said, “Well, there was something, but it’s not there anymore.”
“Definitely,” agreed Yu Fong, “although I would have said that it left your ambit more recently than last night. Of course, my experience in these things is necessarily limited.”
“I visited a gi school this morning and I did some gi in a restaurant at lunch time,” I confessed.
Li Baos asked, “And nothing unusual happened?”
“Not that I noticed,” I answered truthfully.
“We’ll have to check those locations to make sure that there are no unexpected consequences waiting to happen,” Tseng Tung said cheerfully, “but a lack of explosions and other spectacle is a good sign. Now, what is your gi teacher up to?”
We turned our attention back to Master Que. He was still doing his steps and gestures in time to the drum beats, but when I looked at the drummers I got the impression that despite maintaining the constant beat they were saving themselves as if they expected to be at their task for a while. I noticed something else and asked the committee members, “Gentlemen, do those look like second teams of dancers to you?”
Li Bao followed my gaze and said, stroking his chin reflectively, “Yes, they do. That suggests that they expect to be dancing for a while. They may even know how long your teacher intends to be.” He obviously made a decision and said, “I shall go and ask them.” He took a step forward towards the developing disc of energy that lay between us and the dancers and then said, “However, it would be safer to go around, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” agreed Tseng Tung and I thought it might be suppressed laughter making his ponytail dance that way behind him.
We watched Li Bao make his way around whatever it was that Master Que was doing and then Yu Fong said, “I wonder, if I change my viewing angle…?” He turned and said, “If the two of you would excuse me for a few minutes,” bowed and move off in the opposite direction to Li Bao.
“And now we are two, Miss Sung,” commented Tseng Tung. “What do you think of how your teacher’s work is progressing?”
I took a few moments, or what I thought was a few moments, to consider the matter. Fortunately when I returned my attention to Tseng Tung it didn’t appear that more time than I thought had passed. “The gi pattern or structure he’s building is much more defined.” I looked for the words to explain what I was seeing, “It’s balance within balance, or balance encompassing balance, encompassing balance – I’m not sure which. The other thing is, although the energy level is rising, the tension isn’t.” I looked at him, not sure that I’d explained anything at all.
“I agree. It’s not building up to an explosion or any other release of energies,” he looked around speculatively. “So he’s stockpiling harmony but he’s not drawing it in either-.”
“He’s creating it,” I breathed out as I spoke. “When he releases it, it will be like the glass suddenly being removed from a glass of water and the harmony will flow out to find its own level.”
“It’s a blessing,” agreed Tseng Tung. “I think we should find my two colleagues and let them know because I really believe we should let your teacher finish what he’s started.”
We went after Yu Fong first and found him standing amid the onlookers, eyes closed as if he were gazing inward. He was obviously completely oblivious to the people around him – fortunately he’d chosen to stand with his back against the wall of the building behind him. I asked Tseng Tung, “Did I look like that when you found me?”
He flipped his hand in a so-so gesture. “You’re prettier,” he said.
I assumed that meant, “Pretty much, yes,” and made a mental note not to stop to do that in the middle of a thoroughfare next time.
Tseng Tung roused Yu Fong, which was probably a good thing because he knew to dodge the round, bespectacled referee’s wicked right hook backed up by a short, sharp air punch. Master Tseng, I assumed he was a Master, might also have done something to contain the effects of that air punch because I saw no effects from it on the surrounding crowd except for some hair moving with the breeze.
“Why did you do that?” Yu Fong voiced his annoyance. “I almost had that worked out.”
“It’s a blessing,” Tseng Tung told him flatly.
“Yes, of course,” Yu Fong acknowledged that with a wave of his hand. “He’s built at least three layers of harmonisation in there already, but I was trying to identify the type of gi energy he’s using. It doesn’t seem to align directly with any of the schools, old or new.”
“Is it like the healing energies?” Master Tseng was looking interested. “They’re not aligned with any of the schools either.” I turned my attention to Master Yu to wait for his answer.
“I don’t believe so,” answered Yu Fong. “I was just looking at that when you interrupted me.”
I ventured, “I thought that the energy was very much like Master Que.”
They both turned to look at me.
“Cigarette smoke and alcohol, shadow and earth, wry humour and a squint, with a hint of the unwashed,” I offered. “If anything’s dominating, it would be the alcohol.”
“Could your teacher be drunk?” Tseng Tung’s ponytail was shaking again.
“Yes.” I shrugged. “Someone he was out with after I went to bed last night was drinking medicinal tea when I called on him this morning.”
“We definitely need to make sure Li Bao doesn’t intervene then,” said Yu Fong. “Everything’s nicely under control at the moment – we don’t need anyone spilling the cabbages at this point.”
At that point, Li Bao found us. “There you are!” He sounded pleased. “I’m not sure why you all moved from where we were before but I found out what’s going on and I thought I should share.” The three of us looked at him expectantly. “Apparently a mah-jong game started this morning at around half past five among a drunken group of revellers, including Miss Sung’s teacher.” I nodded and waited for him to continue. “He lost an early hand and they’d been wagering dares ‘to make things interesting.’ The hand winner dared Master Que to perform an actual sorcerous ritual here in the capital.” Li Bao shook his head. “Master Que went on to win the services of both lion dancing teams for an hour. The blue lion’s second lead dancer tells me that there’s still about twenty minutes of their mutual time to go.”
“Which gives us an end time for this blessing ritual,” said Tseng Tung.
“A blessing ritual?” Li Bao perked up. “You’re sure?”
“At least three levels of created harmonisation,” confirmed Yu Fong.
“In ying and yang patterns,” I added.
“I’ll speak to the hotel manager and the police,” sighed Li Bao. “You two keep Miss Sung over here, away from all of the fuss. Perhaps someone should organise some food stalls or something.”
I don’t know if Li Bao had had anything to do with it, but it was then that a team of waiters appeared from a hotel side entrance and set up a tea and refreshments stand. Ostensibly it was for hotel guests, but they were offering apologies for the inconvenience and selling tea with little cakes to everyone. Small children were even being offered animal stamps for the backs of their hands. The hotel may not have been happy about what Master Que was up to but they certainly handled it professionally, even giving the police they’d summoned free tea and cakes while they waited for it to be both safe and appropriate to speak to Master Que.
I was getting quite worried about what was going to happen to Master Que when the ritual was finished and the tea, although good, didn’t help the knot of concern growing in the pit of my stomach. Neither did it help that Li Bao could quote the statutes about performing or, more accurately, about not performing rituals on the streets of the capital. He’d just finished citing one that dated back to the Iron Regent when Yu Fong said, “That would outlaw all of those public gi groups you see practising in parks every morning of the week. Wait, the drums have stopped.”
We all turned to look at Master Que and were in time to see him do a final set of steps where the drumbeats should have been. He bowed to both sets of drummers, both teams of dancers and to the knot of official people, including the hotel manager and the police, gathered to one side. Then the metaphorical glass was removed.
I’d never felt harmony as a physical force before. It didn’t hit me directly in the emotions but the world did seem to be a better place after the effects of Master Que’s work had washed through me. Everyone I could see was smiling and I thought the built environment around us seemed cleaner and in slightly better condition than it had before. The lettuces were down off the hotel façade and the lion dancers seemed happy with their payment. There were trees alternating their way down the street outside the hotel where there’d been none before and a shaded alley between two buildings opposite the hotel now had paving stones picked out with ferns whereas I was sure that before it had been concrete and bitumen.
Master Tseng was just saying, “Unwashed? Yes…but for some reason I was forcibly reminded of fox,” when I was distracted by the police going up to Master Que.
This is now followed by In Which Tong Kwai Is Ensnared Due To No Fault Of His Own, Probably.