“An application to the Imperial Magistrate before I’ve made my decision?” Magistrate Lam suddenly sounded…dangerous. “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”
“Part of my tasking today is to apologise to Your Honour for any implied slight or insult.” Mr Hong bowed very low. “It is simply that such an application is standard procedure within the Natural Environment Division of the Department when a breeding population of an extinct species is discovered.”
“These trees are an extinct species?” Magistrate Lam looked intrigued, because she was still facing Mr Hong I could see that Madam Chiew looked annoyed and concerned, I couldn’t see Master Que’s or Tong Kwai’s expressions, and the prosecution representative started looking for something in the neat stack of papers before him.
“Yes, Your Honour. I’m told that there is a stand of six specimens in the grounds of the Pyong Summer Palace, but that as they were grown from cuttings from the one tree and the species does not self-fertilise, they have been incapable of reproduction.” Mr Hong sighed. “Some of my botanical and horticultural colleagues took it badly when I pointed out that the species was not, technically, extinct.” He consulted a note in front of him. “The trees in question are ten mature specimens of the Anyang silk tree.”
Madam Chiew gestured, requesting permission to speak.
Magistrate Lam acknowledged her and said, “Yes, Madam Chiew?”
“Your Honour, it is well known that there are admittedly rare silk trees in the gardens adjoining the Forbidden Palace and the Celestial Temple and that windborne seeds of these sometimes germinate in surrounding areas of the capital. My client would want evidence that these trees are not such scions before accepting such an order.” Madam Chiew turned to look expectantly at Mr Hong, and Magistrate Lam gestured to allow that gentleman to speak again.
“My colleagues advise me,” said Mr Hong, “that the silk trees in those gardens are snowy and riverine silk trees. Both are endangered species but the trees that are the results of Que Tzu’s activities and the subject of the application to the Imperial Magistrate are distinct from both those species in formation, foliage and fruiting bodies. It may be slightly worrying,” he added, “just how excited they are by the presence of ripening fruit bodies on the said trees and it could be a factor that Your Honour may need to take into account before the matter goes to the Imperial Magistrate.”
Magistrate Lam asked sharply, “How so, Mr Hong?”
“Some of them were talking about camping out in the street to protect the fruit, Your Honour.” Mr Hong sighed. “I was unclear if the supposed enemy was rats, the staffs of the Municipal Authority and the Imperial Botanic Gardens, learned botanists, avaricious professional horticulturists, random passers-by, or all of the above.”
“Thank you for your observations, Mr Hong,” Magistrate Lam nodded gravely. “I think we all wish to avoid any suggestion of open warfare in the streets for any cause.” He paused as the representative for the prosecution rose then said, “Mr Peng, you have something?”
Mr Peng, a man of Tong Kwai’s age who was dressed in blacks but had what I’d begun to think of as a policeman’s haircut, bowed and said, “I have in my hand, Your Honour, a statement from the management of the hotel that was supposed to be of their losses caused by Que Tzu’s activities. On assessment, they have concluded that the façade cleaning and minor repairs he effected more than balanced out the losses they may have suffered by the obstruction of their front entrance for over an hour. Additionally, they note the advantages they have gained of a renovation to the decor of their lobby and of certain repairs, normally under the control of the Municipal Authority, which the Authority was delaying until they could be completed as part of the proposed street widening works. May I suggest that Your Honour takes steps to establish exactly what the accused at least thought that he was doing?” Mr Peng bowed again and sat.
Master Lam nodded. “Thank you, Mr Peng. A point well made. Que Tzu, what ritual did you perform?”
Master Que cleared his throat. “I believe that in modern parlance, it would be a Ritual to Promote Harmony Between the People and the Landscape.” He added thoughtfully, “Or possibly “their Environment.”
“When you say ‘in modern parlance’ does that mean you’re translating something else in your head, Que Tzu?” Magistrate Lam looked rather like a stern schoolmaster as Master Que nodded. “How long have you known this ritual and who taught it to you?”
“As far as I remember, it’s always been in the back of my head.” I thought Master Que sounded uncertain. “Perhaps my first gi teacher? I did start initial instruction when I was very young.”
Magistrate Lam’s look at Master Que was both sharp and thoughtful. “Unfortunately, this is not the venue to pursue that subject. Mr Hong¸ am I right in assuming that the Anyang silk tree was originally endemic to the capital? Particularly as Market Quarter was originally the village of Anyang?”
Mr Hong sounded slightly surprised, “Yes, Your Honour, you are. I’m told that the last stand was cleared when the villas along the river at Shonen Bridge were built, about two hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Very well,” Magistrate Lam took a deep breath. “Mr Peng, does the prosecution have any submissions to make concerning sentencing?”
Mr Peng stood again and bowed, “Yes, Your Honour. We also note that Que Tzu did not, by his actions, seek to harm anyone or damage property. Additionally, he did not conduct any of the protest acts that the charge of wanton and unauthorized municipal maintenance and street beautification was originally designed to combat. I would also bring to Your Honour’s attention that although Que Tzu has previous convictions for drunken and disorderly conduct in this jurisdiction, those convictions are all over fifteen years old and none involved crimes of violence against persons or property.”
“So noted.” Magistrate Lam nodded. “I believe there are two matters that I need to rule upon here. These are the consequences due to Que Tzu as the result of his breaking the law, and an interim instruction as to the effects of his law breaking until the matter can be ruled upon in the superior court.” He paused, looked around the court room, waited for everyone standing to sit, and took a deep breath before continuing, “The changes wrought upon the streetscape and affected buildings, including all redecoration, replacement and plantings, are to be maintained in their current state until the matter has been ruled upon by the Imperial Magistrate. This will both preserve the matter for the superior court and allow the permanency of the changes Que Tzu has wrought to be judged. Madam Chiew, I recommend that any appeal that your client may wish to make on this head should be joined with the Department of Agriculture and the Natural Environment’s application to the Imperial Magistrate.” Madam Chiew stood, bowed in response, and sat again. “Que Tzu, I appreciate both your candour and your care in choosing a course of action that both fulfilled your moral obligation, incurred while drunk, and harmed no-one. You still broke the law and should have known better than to incur this particular obligation, even if you were drunk. Consequently, you are hereby sentenced to community service. Clerk, so strike the papers!”
Tong Kwai stood and bowed.
Magistrate Lam affected a surprised look. “Yes, Mr Tong?”
“I understand, Your Honour, that it is customary to specify the requirements of community service before striking the papers.” Tong Kwai bowed again.
Magistrate Lam smiled. “It is, Mr Tong, and you do well to bring it to my attention. Que Tzu, you will hold yourself available to perform the sorcerous ritual you performed today at the behest of this court for the benefit of the nation with such performances not to exceed twelve in the next three year period and not to take place at intervals shorter than two months. Mr Tong, you will be the court’s liaison with Que Tzu and it will be upon you to ensure that he attends and performs at the appointed time and locations.” He smiled again. “Is that specific enough for you, Mr Tong?”
“Perfectly, Your Honour,” replied Tong Kwai faintly.
“Que Tzu,” went on Magistrate Lam, “you may leave the capital, but you will require the permission of this court if, for any reason, you need or desire to leave the country. You will keep Mr Tong apprised of your whereabouts and your contact details. I will not appoint a parole officer at this time, however this will be reviewed if you fail to adhere to the terms I have set. Do you understand these conditions?”
Master Que stood again and bowed. “I do, Your Honour.” He sat and, Tseng Tung and Yu Fong promptly stood.
Magistrate Lam looked surprised and said, “Gentlemen? I’m afraid you may feel that your time was wasted, but I’m afraid that in view of Que Tzu’s plea your evidence was not required in order to establish the facts of this case.”
Yu Fong bowed again and replied, “It’s not that, Your Honour. Indeed, I feel this hearing has been most informative. No, I am confident I speak for my colleague, Master Tseng Tung, when I say that we would both like the opportunity to observe at least one of the occasions when Que Tzu fulfils his sentence obligations. We have a strong professional interest in ritual sorcery,” he finished simply.
Magistrate Lam smiled and asked, “Is this so, Master Tseng?”
Tseng Tung bowed. “Yes, Your Honour.”
“And you, Master Li?” Magistrate Lam was still smiling.
Li Bao rose and bowed. “I have a minor interest in ritual sorcery as it impacts on my duties with the Illustrious Board of Referees, nothing more, Your Honour. I would, of course, be fascinated to read any paper that my colleagues might wind up writing on the subject.”
“Of course.” Magistrate Lam nodded. “Mr Hong,” that gentleman rose and bowed, “please advise your colleagues that they will need to prioritise their list of places they wish to deploy Que Tzu to. If nothing else, they may not be the only Department wishing to utilise his services. If there are no further issues to be raised in relation to this matter, I will now adjourn this hearing.”
The court official who had announced Magistrate Lam when he’d entered the court now demanded that we stand to honour his departure. We did so and Magistrate Lam rose, bowed to us, bid us go in peace, and left the room. We all bowed as he went through the magistrate’s entrance and then it was as if everyone was back to normal.
Mr Peng shook Tong Kwai by the hand and said consolingly, “First criminal court case? Better you than me but it could have been worse. How did you wind up here?”
Tong Kwai seemed a little distracted but answered, “I mainly do commercial work and at dinner with my honoured parents a few days ago, I foolishly commented that the work I’m doing now is more stressful than the work my father was doing at my age.” He glanced apologetically at Master Que, “I believe he decided that working for his old client, Que Tzu, would be character building for me.”
I could hear Master Que’s amused grunt from where I was.
“I’m not worried about the supervisory aspects of the sentence,” went on Tong Kwai, “because I have complete confidence in my client’s probity.” Master Que definitely snorted. “But this is the Municipal Magistrate’s Court. Can Magistrate Lam order community service on the level of ‘for the good of the nation’?”
Mr Hong and Madam Chiew looked up from what they were doing and turned to look at Tong Kwai with the same slightly stunned expression that Mr Peng was displaying.
“Not that I wish to appeal the decision,” added Tong Kwai hastily.
“No,” Mr Hong made a dismissive gesture, “it’s just that you’re right. How did he slip that through us?”
“Because he’s good,” said Mr Peng. He glanced over at the court officials still in the room and dropped his voice a little, “There has been some speculation that this isn’t the first time he’s been a magistrate, if you know what I mean.”
“That would explain a lot,” said Mr Hong briskly.
“Indeed,” agreed Madam Chiew, “and even if he’s not, he could still get his judgement ratified by an Imperial Magistrate. His incarnation, or not, doesn’t really matter.”
“We’ll all see,” replied Mr Hong in a more normal voice. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a shopping list for the New Year from my wife that I’m supposed to fulfil on my way home from the office.”
That broke up the legal huddle and Master Que headed in my direction, trailing Tong Kwai behind him. “Well,” he said to me, “today has been rather more educational for you in ways and degree than I intended.”
“You intended today to be educational?” I didn’t believe him and let it show in my tone.
“Of course I didn’t,” he smiled back, “but this sort of foolishness is one of the things having you around generally stops me doing.”
“Conducting sorcerous rituals in public places in broad daylight?” I let my eyebrows rise in incredulity.
“Hanging out with the boon companions who make that sort of thing seem logical,” he corrected me with a grin. “Speaking of which, you’ve spent months spending your time with me, you’ve spent a lot of today hanging around police stations and courtrooms waiting for me, you won a major championship yesterday, and you’re in a city which is widely held to have an underlying hot bed of cutting edge entertainments. You should go out tonight and spend some time with people your own age. Shouldn’t she, gentlemen?” He gave a look that included the three other Masters and Tong Kwai.
I got in before anyone else could reply and said, “Not if it involves someone called Kwang Jie or his bosom buddies.”
“The University Gi League Champion,” commented Master Que. “Where did you meet him and what did he do to make you dislike him?”
“He and his friends got thrown out of the restaurant I had lunch in for throwing food,” I told him. “I see no reason to pursue the acquaintance no matter who he is.”
Tseng Tung said gravely, “You’re probably a little young for most of the entertainments in Shandong and for most of the Golden Li.”
“There’s a foreign movie festival at the Red Cinema,” offered Yu Fong, “although you might not be able to get tickets this close to the showing – I hear it’s been very popular.”
Li Bao added gravely, “Of course, the night markets are very popular this time of year with people buying speciality items for the New Year festivities.” The others looked at him in surprise and he went on, “There are lots of stalls of the type where you might strike up a conversation with other customers.” He blushed. “That’s where I first met my dear wife, when we were both about your age, Miss Sung.”
I thanked the, I was beginning to realise, very distinguished gentlemen for their suggestions and followed Master Que and Tong Kwai out of the building. Once we were out on the pavement, Master Que turned to me and said, “Sung Nai, I need to go to Mr Tong’s office to settle my account and set up our communication arrangements for my community service. You’ve already spent far too much of today on my foolishness, it’s time for you to go back to the hotel and get ready to go out for the evening. I expect to get back there and find you about to abandon me for the night,” he finished sternly.
I bowed obediently, Master Que was my gi teacher after all, and said, “As you wish, Master Que.” Then I turned to Tong Kwai, “It was a pleasure to have met you, Mr Tong, and I appreciate your efforts on behalf of my teacher.” I bowed and then asked, “Might I have a copy of your business card? In case I ever find myself in need of legal assistance while I am in the capital.”
Tong Kwai produced a card case from a pocket and gravely handed me one of the professional looking cards with his name above the details of Tong, Associates and Son. “My firm would be delighted to assist you, Miss Sung, if you ever have need of our services. I hope that you enjoy your evening.” He bowed to me and then we went our separate ways.
When I next saw Master Que I was indeed about to abandon him for the night. I was wearing silk blacks over a white silk shirt, I had my old fashioned military boots on, and I was about to go out, but I had paused to admire the new rug the lobby had acquired as part of Master Que’s earlier activities. My admiration was being enlivened by the ecstasies of a newly arrived rug salesman who had booked in for the night and then had been distracted by something that was obviously in his field of speciality. The rug was obviously very new and the duty manager was busy agreeing that it was obviously an excellent Fu period reproduction but no, he couldn’t put the salesman in contact with the manufacturer. His verbal gymnastics to avoid explaining exactly how the hotel had acquired the rug were quite amusing, if you knew what had happened earlier.
Master Que walked in, looked around and whistled admiringly, then walked over to me before going to the front desk for his room key. “So,” he said to me, “do you think that this whole cinema-style Fu period thing works?” He gestured generally at the refurbished lobby.
“People seem to like it,” I told him. “That rug salesman’s spent the last five minutes trying to get the duty manager to tell him where they got the rug from.”
“It is a very nice rug,” allowed Master Que. “I trust you’re planning a late night?” He looked me up and down approvingly. “Very nice, that outfit should take you anywhere you might want or need to go. I intend to get to bed early myself, so I’ll see you in the morning – unless you need to wake me to help bury the bodies.” I must have gotten an odd expression on my face because he added gently, “That was supposed to be a joke. Now, go off and enjoy yourself and don’t worry about me.” Then he pushed me in the direction of the door.
I went to the night markets that Li Bao had recommended where I snacked my way through barbequed and skewered meats, assorted dim sum, and sticky rice desserts. I also bought two empty hampers of a type often used for railway meal baskets and filled them with New Year treats that didn’t need heating or other kitchen preparation to enjoy. The various stall holders were very helpful when I explained that I was going to be on a train for the entirety of the holiday and by the time I was finished, Master Que and I were not going to completely miss out on New Year after all. After that, because I found myself near the Red Cinema, I went in and found that they had a late show about to begin and I got myself a decent ticket to a Nihonga samurai movie. Fortunately it had subtitles because their language is nothing like ours. The swords were pretty, the swordplay was interesting, and the whole feudal society thing was fascinating but their whole treatment of sorcery seemed off somehow and I couldn’t put my finger on why.
It was after midnight when the movie got out and I spent the walk back to the hotel trying to work out whether the hero, Shiro, had been someone’s reincarnation or not because in the final scene at the end of the credits it was revealed that he couldn’t have been Mifune’s reincarnation because Mifune was actually the old monk and very much alive. Unless the old monk, the abbot and the sorceress were lying – but then, why? I thought the ambiguity was actually a very satisfactory ending because the whole movie had been a consideration of the nature of reality and I made a note before I went to bed to find out if the screenplay had been based on a book.
I woke and got up at about seven in the morning and packed my suitcases ready to leave. I took my mask out of its case before I tucked it away and had a good look at myself, as my mask portrayed me to the world. It was still a black oval, unrelieved by colour. There were definitely high cheek bones, a firm chin, and a new, faint, indicative quirk of eyebrows above the eye holes. It was a calm face and, I thought, inscrutable. It was also quite beautiful. I didn’t really see how that could be me.
So I put my mask back in its box, finished packing and went down to breakfast. Master Que was seated at a table opposite Tong Kwai and plying him with what I hoped was strong tea. I collected rice, pickles and fish from the buffet and sat down at the same table, greeting them both as I did so. Master Que poured me a cup of the tea he’d been giving Tong Kwai and I found that it was a smoky blue tea. “It seems,” he said conversationally, “that Magistrate Lam has had his judgement ratified.”
“Oh?” I took a mouthful of rice and waited for either of them to continue.
“My father’s assistant opened our copy first thing this morning, thinking that it was for my father,” explained Tong Kwai, cradling his teacup in his hands. “It wasn’t ratified by an Imperial Magistrate, it went to the President!” He drank some more tea. “And then he signed it again, as the Solar Emperor, with the comment that he accepted the advice of the Jade Button Magistrate in this matter.” He drank some more tea.
“The matter going to the President is impressive but, and please excuse my ignorance,” I said, “who is the Jade Button Magistrate?”
“Magistrate Lam,” answered Tong Kwai. “The Jade Button Magistrate’s been the country’s chief judicial officer for about five hundred years, all up. All the criminal specialists at the office are in a tizzy because, well, the chances of getting an appeal up against one of his decisions…”
“Just became astronomically small,” supplied Master Que helpfully. “I believe Tong Kwai is hiding out here with me for a few hours until the fuss back at the office dies down to a dull roar. Nai, you should finish your breakfast and visit the post office for the mail before we check out, while I take care of our friend here.”
“Yes, sir.” I dutifully ate my breakfast then went off to collect the mail while Master Que continued to ply Tong Kwai with strong tea and sweet pastries.
This is now followed by "In Which We Get On A Train."