I found it slightly disorienting to wake up on the floor of a room that was bare except for my suitcases, my bedding and me. I was in the front uppermost western room of the main house and I was rapidly concluding that whatever the airspace between me and the house next door, it was probably not enough. I was quite happy to get up, dress and go in search of breakfast. I found Master Que in a room next to the main house’s kitchen dishing up rice from a rice cooker. Sambal and pickled vegetables sat in serving bowls on the table.
I groaned, then apologised, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about putting on the rice cooker before I went to bed last night.”
“I assumed that you would be rather occupied with starting school and house moving matters,” replied Master Que calmly, “so I decided to run the kitchen for the next few days. Once you have a routine we can work out a division of household labour that suits us both.”
“Thank you,” I said humbly. “I should take their morning rice to the household shrine.”
“Here’s a bowl for them.” Master Que handed me one of our set of four. “Why are you so punctilious about someone else’s family shrine?”
“Well, technically we’re their guests while they’re still in residence.” I added rice, sambal and pickles to the bowl. “And one side of my family is deeply anxious about propitiating the ancestral spirits while the other takes great pride in their ancestors.”
“So, where does that leave you?” Master Que poured me out a cup of tea to take to the shrine with the food.
“Anxious not to offend the resident enshrined spirits by ignoring them. Besides,” I flashed a smile at him, “did you see how many of them were scholars? Maybe if I take care of them while they’re still here then they’ll put in a good word for me at exam time.”
“Jog the markers’ hand and give you a few extra marks?” Master Que gave me a rascally smile back.
“More that the questions cover the parts of the material that I’ve learnt best, although I’ll take a hint on which particular bits to study,” I told him.
“I’m sure they’ll appreciate that you expect to do the work,” laughed Master Que. “Now, go attend to them, then come back and see to yourself. You do have places to be this morning, after all.”
So I honoured the Lao family ancestors and then had my own breakfast. While I was eating my rice and sambal I described the gi-trails I’d seen in the staff fight to Master Que.
“I thought I liked that boy,” he commented to me over the steaming cup of brown liquid in his hand. “It sounds like he could have been one of us, but if his heart lies with the stave I can’t fault him for that. Of course, in the old days there were people who did both. I remember my first teacher telling me the stories about Sing Choi and Tuan Gao when I first went to live with him and still needed comforting to get to sleep. They were both sorcerers but Sing Choi was a sword master and his friend Tuan Gao was a master of the man-long staff, the gun. They used to roam around Baoding province thwarting the machinations of Lord Chu when he was trying to seize the position of Regent for the infant Solar Emperor.”
Diverted, I remarked, “I grew up two provinces over, but I’ve never heard of Sing Choi and Tuan Gao. Did anyone ever write the stories down?”
Master Que looked much struck. “I really don’t know. It’s never occurred to me to wonder, and they were very good stories, full of daring do and adventure. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure which incarnation of the Solar Emperor it was who was a child at the time. His mother was called Han and she’d been born a Chu, so being head of her birth family and of higher status than her husband’s family head was Lord Chu’s claim to the Regency. Aside from that…” He made a nothing gesture with his hands.
“If you write it all down, then there might be enough in there to work it all out,” I pointed out.
“And it would give me something to do as a break from dealing with organising aspects of your career,” said Master Que meditatively before he quickly added, “Not that you’re being a problem but there are several individuals I’d like to have understand that I’m not just waiting around for them to get back to me. Bruiting it around that I’m writing a memoir of sorts might be just the thing….” He stroked his chin in a manner that me wonder exactly what he was contemplating.
On that note I finished my breakfast, gathered up my things and set off to walk to university for the first time.
The walk took what I expect for about one and a half li, some of it downhill. Given the steepness of that downhill piece, I expected the walk home to take a little longer.
My morning was scheduled to be talks from the various services available to students on campus, counsellors and so forth. For this we were bundled into large groups with about half of the year’s student intake and the presenters circled the campus rather than having multiple thousand students milling around during the presentations. I, and everyone else who’d picked up a place in the final sweep of offers, were assigned to a quaint, eight-sided lecture room in the Tang Jet Building down on the southern boundary of the university. On my map it said the building was used for astrophysics and astronomy, even though it was on the opposite side of the campus to the rest of Physical Sciences. On the sign outside the building where the faculty affiliation was noted it read, ‘The expanding universe.’
The acoustics of the eight-sided room were really very good, particularly as it was clear that it had been built for something else. If you looked, you could see that the walls of the room had once been external walls and the floor had that slightly rough textured finish you find in older stone-paved open spaces. I was sure that the room had once been an open courtyard, but how long ago I had no idea. The lecturer’s stage along one wall somehow looked as if it might have been part of the original architecture and it certainly allowed the diminutive lady from Student Services to command the room as she spoke about the advocacy, non-academic activities and other support services they provided for the students in return for the annual fees they received from all of us.
We had a short break and then it was the turn of the university’s Counselling Service and the assigned chaplains to talk to us. I hadn’t thought about the religious aspect of mental support, but I was surprised to find that there were no less than six religious lined up to talk to us about faith-based support. There was a temple priest, an orange robed monk who was actually a nun, a grey robed monk, a wandering priest and a Shimba spirit talker. Nothing really unusual there. The sixth religious, however, wore a northern suit of clothes in black with a white shirt and a long black strip of cloth tied around his neck. He was also the most northern looking person I’d ever seen with almost white hair, pale skin, a nose that made the eagle beak given by cartoon satirists to certain northern politicians look normal, and about six chi in height.
He spoke with a heavy foreign accent that I couldn’t place and introduced himself after the others had spoken, “I am Fraternal Brother Timothy Franklin, an ordained missionary of the Reformed Kirk of Alba and Lyonesse. We believe in the birth and resurrection of the Son of God, the forgiveness of sins, the communion of saints and the life everlasting.” He paused and scanned the audience while we just sat there, then gave a small laugh, “Yeah, I’m not from around here. My faith doesn’t officially believe in spirits, sorcery, or reincarnation but if that sounds to you like I stick my fingers in my ears and hum to myself so I can ignore what’s going on around me, I assure you that I listen when people come to me for someone to talk to. I can keep confidences, I can come with you to provide moral support if you need to go to someone else to get help, and I can mostly refrain from passing judgement – but I will have views on murder and crimes of violence.” Something caught his attention, perhaps someone had put a hand up, and he asked, “Yes?”
A clear male voice called out, “Isn’t murder a crime of violence?”
The Fraternal Brother answered, “Physically, not always. Consider the matter of poison. Morally, ethically and intellectually, I would say yes,” the other religious on the dais nodded in agreement, “but your views might vary. I’m open for discussion over a cup of tea.” He looked around the audience, “Well, that’s me done – I’d better let the Counselling Service have their slot now.”
As the Counselling Service outlined what they could do for us, and gave a warning about rogue therapy providers with northern affiliations and training, it occurred to me that Ti Mo might be lonely, being far from home among people who didn’t believe what he did.
We had a short break after that session while we stood up, stretched and waited for the final presenter for the morning, who was to speak on scholarships, bursaries and loans, to arrive. We were still standing around when an elderly man in scholars’ robes entered and took the dais without an introduction from the staff member who’d been running the morning for us. He hailed us all cheerily with, “Good morning! Please take your seats! I’m Professor Hu Kun and welcome to Cosmological Astrophysics. It’s good to see so many of you joining us this year!”
He was so certain and so senior that the habit of respect made us sit and I, for one, started taking notes. Professor Hu ran through the course assessment program and started in on his subject matter. I found it, or the professor’s presentation, fascinating and had almost half a page of notes that was mainly a copy of his diagram before the morning’s organiser re-entered the room and dashed up to the dais to interrupt the professor.
“But this is my lecture time,” he protested. “These must be my students.”
“Professor Hu,” the administrator said respectfully, “lectures don’t start till next week.”
“They don’t?” He looked around the room, “Oh, dear. I am so sorry.” He looked confused, sorry and a bit embarrassed, “I’ll just get my things and get out of your way.”
In the corner of my eye I saw someone with a long ponytail stand up and bow. “Cheng Mu, First Year Physical Sciences, Professor. What year do I need to be in to do this course and what are the prerequisites?”
Professor Hu immediately looked brighter, “Oh, you’re interested? Really? Well it’s a third year course, and if you, and anyone else who’s interested, come to my office on the second floor after you’re finished here, we can discuss requisites and study paths.” He paused as he picked up the last of his things and then added, “I’d be happy to see anyone who thinks that they might want to sit in on the lectures then as well,” before scurrying out of the room.
The financial speaker prefaced her talk by saying that she was sure we all knew that the major scholarships for the year had been awarded before we’d even gained our places at the university. She pointed out that there were a whole range of additional financial boosts, including certain part-time low level assisting positions in various faculties that were only available to scholarship holders. At that point, frankly, I wondered why she was talking to us. Then she started talking about the various prizes and awards available during the year that specified that you couldn’t be in receipt of one of the scholarships or bursaries that we’d missed out on. It was a surprising long list. Particularly when you added on the things we were as able to enter as anyone else. I wound up with half a page of notes and hoped that several dates linked to tests and essays weren’t going to conflict with other things I already had to do.
I realised that I am sufficiently my father’s daughter that I wanted to be able to show off my own academic prizes.
After the financial talk finished, we were free to go to whatever was our lunch schedule. However, I made my way to the second floor to find Professor Hu’s office. I wasn’t alone, there must have been about twenty of us, including Cheng Mu. Most of them were Physical Sciences students, although one was a Classical Studies student who was interested in philosophical cosmology. There were a few students whose interest was in astronomy and astrophysics but had been admitted to courses that weren’t Physical Sciences, and then there was me. I was the last one in the his office and Professor Hu looked at me over his reading glasses that he’d put on when he’d started flipping through course guides to show people what they could do. “And what about you, Miss?”
“Sung Nai, Professor,” I bowed. “I’m an Earth Sciences student, and I would have liked to have sat in on your lectures but they are on at the same time as my Philosophy tutorial.”
“I’m afraid that’s the only time slot I’m giving that course in,” replied Professor Hu, “but what did I say to interest an Earth Scientist?”
“I’m also a gi student,” I explained and opened up my notebook, “and your diagram is almost the exactly the same as the one in Breezes on the Celestial Plain when Wu Jen is talking about energy relationships.”
Professor Hu sat back in his chair. “Ah, you’re a sorceress, and potentially a learned one if you’re already reading Wu Jen. Do you believe that the world is an illusion?”
I replied, “I’m a professional gi fighter, and I believe that the world is real but our perception of it is limited and we create a plausible illusion in our minds to cover the gaps left by our senses.” I grinned, “But treating perceived reality as an illusion can be a useful tool, on occasion.”
“A combat sorceress then,” Professor Hu corrected himself with good humour. “I suppose if you’re doing Earth Sciences then you’re probably Hoshun?”
“Yes, Professor, I am.” I asked, “You’re not going to call me a sorceress in front of people are you? I mean I know I am, intellectually speaking, but there’s a lot of baggage with that these days.”
“Of course,” Professor Hu nodded, “it’s not that long since being a sorcerer could get you killed. However, if you want to explore the similarities between current thoughts on energy relationships in physics and the principles in gi, I’d have to refer you to some of the postgraduate supervisors over in the main Physical Sciences campus. Over here we’re much more involved in determining the shape of the universe.”
“Wouldn’t that depend on how you were looking at it?” I have no idea why that came out of my mouth.
“Where-.” Professor Hu stopped speaking and then started again, “No, you don’t mean from where you’re looking, you mean what you’re looking with, don’t you?” He beamed at me. “Come and see me next week and I’ll have a name or two for you to talk to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and complicate the lives of some graduate students and I’m sure that you have a luncheon you’re supposed to be at.” With that he ushered me out of his office, locking his door behind us.
I went down the stairs to the ground level and left him walking down the corridor happily humming a show tune.
This is now followed by In Which Orientation Finishes Without Anyone Dying.