We repaired to The House of Internal Repose, which I would never have found on my own as it was in through a side door between two shop entrances on the Boulevarde, and then up a flight of stairs to a large room that was open to the afternoon air over a courtyard or alley on the opposite side of the building to the Boulevarde. The outlook of a wall of apartment windows in a brick wall was partly obscured by a row of ornamental plants along the ledge of the tea house, and I hoped that the large bamboos and jade plants also enhanced the outlook of the apartment dwellers. We were met at the top of the stairs by a lady of the formidable category universally addressed by the rest of us as “Aunty”. Master Dang asked the middle-aged lady with permed hair tied back in a headscarf for a table for five, and in one breath she both introduced herself as Aunty Reng and then flirted with both Master Dang and Mr Li.
She impressed me.
Mr Dang had a ‘what have I been dragged into now’ expression on his face, and my classmate, Guo Jian, was looking like a stunned fish again. He was also looking around the room and recognising people, or that was how I interpreted the variations in his expression. When I looked around the room, I saw small groups of, mainly, men drinking tea together. Some were playing games of mah jong. One pair were playing go. Just based on appearance and activity, Master Que would fit right in and I wondered whether I should introduce him to this establishment. Aside from Aunty Reng, and the waitresses who also wore their hair tied back in head scarves, the women present when we arrived looked sleek and negotiable. I exchanged slight bows with one of the ladies I’d met outside The Lotus Pond, but we didn’t speak – aside from any other consideration, I didn’t want to interrupt her while she was working.
Aunty Reng put us at a table in the middle of the northern portion of the floor. Around us there was quiet conversation in at least three languages and the click of tiles being played. A little hazel-eyed waitress came and took our order from Master Dang, two plates of mixed cakes and a large pot of Wujan Pearl tea, and then we all sat and looked at each other. “I am not sure,” ventured Guo Jian, “why we are here.”
“So that we can ensure that Mr Li here neither loses face, nor thinks that he can rob Miss Sung with impunity, while leaving nothing for her teacher, Master Que Tzu, to get upset about.” Master Dang sat back comfortably in his chair. “Things tend to happen to people that Que Tzu gets upset with. Isn’t that so, Miss Sung?”
The rest of the table looked at me, so I replied, “Well it does depend on what he’s upset about. I’ve seen him give people a good talking to for doing something stupid and dangerous, and I’ve seen him help make sure that people wind up in gaol.”
Master Dang looked at me for a moment and then asked, “You don’t consider the incident of the other night in your answer? He did break a man’s arm in three places.” Mr Li went pale.
“I was preoccupied with Mr Teng when he did that,” I replied quietly, “so I can’t say whether he was upset or not when he did it. His explanation was an extremely practical one. He was upset with Mr Teng, but you’ll notice that I did not release Mr Teng to him.”
Master Dang kept looking at me for a few more moments, and Mr Li was also looking at me with an appraising look. It was Master Dang who said slowly, “Your...filial devotion is to be applauded, Miss Sung. It isn’t easy to stop a beloved parental figure from committing an unwise act. In Que Tzu’s place I would have wanted to…render Mr Teng’s person less whole, despite the venue.”
Because I didn’t know what to say, I made a self-deprecating gesture, and then Heaven sent the waitress to our table with Master Dang’s order so that I didn’t have to say anything at all.
Tea was poured, cakes were distributed, and there were a few companionable minutes while we all sipped and nibbled.
It was Mr Dang who said seriously, “The story about a gi demonstration and a possible lesson is a good one. It explains all the events and ascribes no malice or avarice to anyone.”
“I’m full of avarice,” admitted Mr Li. He turned to me and asked, “Did you really save the Solar Emperor’s life in that bout?”
“It seems probable,” I admitted. “Things happened in that ring that weren’t supposed to happen. There’s an inquiry going on.”
“Then the other night, you wind up in the middle of an attempt to start an underworld war,” went on Mr Li. “I don’t know what your life was like before the last month or two, Miss Sung, but have you considered that you might attract…events?”
“A weirdness magnet, you mean?” Guo Jian seemed to have recovered himself.
“I don’t think that my gi or my ambit are that entangling,” I drank some more tea. “I don’t think that many weird things happen to me either.”
“Ambit is a term you don’t hear often,” commented Master Dang. “It might be a useful line of study for you, Dang Wan.”
“I shall keep it in mind, Father,” the younger man replied respectfully.
It suddenly occurred to me to ask, “Excuse me, Master Dang and Mr Dang, are you two related to Dang Huai, the President of the Xiamtian University Gi Club?”
“I am not aware of him,” replied Master Dang slowly.
“He’s a Laosung,” said Dang Wan crisply. “Trained with Master Bai Xu of Pantang, where his family live. Came second on points in the provincial interuniversity competition but was eliminated in the finals by the winner of the grand final bout. Seems to have ambitions, but it’s not clear to me whether he’s aiming for a sponsored launch into the professional circuit or long-term sponsorship as an amateur, followed by a corporate position with a major sponsor.” He looked around the table and added apologetically, “I may disappoint my father and various other senior members of my family with my lack of skill with gi, but I’m good with that sort of statistics and analysis.”
“We’re not all born with the same talents,” remarked his father mildly. “I keep telling you that there are people who would pay you very well for such skills and knowledge.”
“Master Que spent a lot of effort and time evaluating my potential opponents in the lead up to the national championships to help him decide exactly where I should fight,” I commented. “I imagine that many fighters could use such a service.”
“Please note, Dang Wan,” added his father, “that I am not the only person who thinks that. Sports journalism is also an option.”
“We didn’t come here to talk about my future,” pointed out Dang Wan. “Should Mr Li make the acquaintance of Master Que, or should he politely refuse to teach his waijin to people who are not only outside the circles in which he learnt it but whom he does not know?”
“Without meeting the bone-breaking Master,” annotated Mr Li, with feeling.
Dang Wan put down his tea cup and said seriously, “You do realise that Miss Sung here has also broken bones, don’t you?”
“Bing Lu Ming will recover,” I said firmly, “and hopefully he has learnt that it is unacceptable to hurt other people for fun. There was no need for him to break Chung Man Fu’s legs.”
“Gi bouts are notoriously rough,” pointed out Master Dang.
“Chung Man Fu was flat on his back at the time,” I replied.
Mr Li asked cautiously, “So, what did you do to this Bing Lu Ming?”
I looked at Mr Li and replied, “I declined to fight him, and removed him from the ring. Apparently, the back of my mind decided that he wasn’t worth more of my time.” I added, “If it had been a caged bout, it is likely that he would have been much more badly hurt.”
Mr Li said quietly, “May I politely decline to teach you and your Master my traditional gi skill?”
“Of course, Mr Li.” I was politely formal. “That is your right, and possibly your obligation. I can’t guarantee that I won’t work out how to do something similar, now that I know that yours is possible.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” observed Master Dang. “What do you think, Mr Guo?”
“Am I supposed to have an opinion, sir?” Guo Jian, teacup held halfway from the table to his mouth, was looking surprised again.
“Why shouldn’t you? You’re an intelligent young man who’s seen all of what’s happened.” Master Dang smiled, then added, “Of course you might also decide that the course of wisdom includes not voicing that opinion, but you are definitely allowed to have an opinion.”
“Ah.” Guo Jian put down his teacup. “I first thought that my classmate, Sung Nai, was foolish wandering around this neighbourhood on her own and reeking of money. Now I find out that she could probably have handled all three of the people who were following her, including Mr Li here, quite easily.”
“I still appreciate that you warned me that I was doing something foolish,” I interjected.
Guo Jian smiled at me, and then went on, “Sung Nai may need to learn more situational awareness outside the ring, but some things simply aren’t as dangerous for her as they are for other people. That may well be the basis for her threat assessments, but she might want to consider whether looking like a likely mark is going to cause her unusual complications with hardworking members of Mr Li’s and related professions.”
Master Dang went to say something, but then looked thoughtful.
My class mate went on, “I believe Sung Nai confused Mr Li by not acting as he expected her to. Mr Li is known for his mental agility. Less adaptive personalities might well have resorted to violence when she refused to be robbed.”
“She did give me money anyway,” pointed out Mr Li. “Most of us don’t care why it goes from the mark’s hand to ours, but there are a couple of folk around who’d react differently to Miss Sung’s approach.”
“Which is why I believe Sung Nai needs to exercise more caution,” replied Guo Jian. “It seems that she and Mr Li have come to a mutually agreeable explanation of events which will not involve any bone breaking, but future incidents might not end so well.”
I asked, “So, if I want to do shopping down this end of Zhong Tao Road, I should leave the silk jackets at home?”
“It would be wise,” answered Guo Jian, and Mr Li nodded.
“Very well, I’ll keep it in mind,” I agreed and sipped my tea while considering where to get a set of cotton blacks that Master Que would approve of for me.
Master Dang steered the conversation towards other topics, and after a few minutes I was an onlooker to a vigorous discussion between the men about the Central Southern Provinces’ Professional Baseball League’s forthcoming season. Between them the four men favoured three different teams, two based in Xiamtian and Master Dang’s favourite from southern Wugao. All of them agreed that the prime threat was a team from western Taoqing, the province to Wugao’s west. When I was asked my opinion, I admitted that I knew very little about baseball, aside from the Zhongxiaoshan Inter-Secondary School League which my school had won twice in the time I attended. When pressed, I confessed that I knew the Jingshi-based professional team was known as the Swifts and that their catcher was Ya Mo, whose sister, Ya Fang, had been one of my classmates.
Master Dang gave me a slow look over the top of his teacup, and then asked me if I intended to develop an interest in such things, now that I was away from home and developing new social ties.
I considered that for a moment and said, “I would imagine that their games would coincide with the timing of gi-tournaments. Taking into account my studies as well, I don’t think I’d have a chance to attend any actual games and that would be the point of following a team, wouldn’t it?”
“There’s a certain tribal sense of belonging to being one of a team’s supporters,” Master Dang told me gravely. “You may wish to consider it.”
“If you’re in Xiamtian, your choices should be the Dockers, or my recommendation, the Phoenixes,” said Wang Dan.
“The Phoenixes do need to regenerate for this coming season,” pointed out Mr Li, who’d already declared himself a Dockers follower, “and they need all the fans they can get. If baseball isn’t your thing though, there’s dragon boat racing. Smaller catchment area so every crew is local, and a festival-based competition so you’re unlikely to be working when they’re racing.”
“One hears stories about the betting culture around dragon boat racing at some festivals,” remarked Master Dang.
“I can give you some referrals if you’re interested in that sort of thing,” offered Mr Li. “He looked around at the rest of the table and said, “What? Women like to bet too, and it’s not like she’d be betting on gi bouts.”
I pointed out, “But I might be bad at picking winners, wind up owing the bookie lots of money, and find myself under pressure to rig gi fights.”
“There’s always that,” agreed Mr Li. “It’s best to stick with the bookies who won’t let you bet on credit. That way the nastiest shock you can get is that they won’t place your bet. And, of course, never bet on an odds-on favourite – don’t bet on odds-on anything, you’ll wind up losing money no matter what.”
“Or caught up in a criminal money laundering scheme,” remarked Master Dang.
Mr Li laughed. “You’re thinking of that business at Runreonglu a few years ago. I heard that they only got caught because someone’s mother-in-law placed a bet after hearing that the fix was in, but not the details, and then complained to the authorities when she didn’t get a payout.”
Wang Dan asked, “Didn’t she know what odds-on meant, or didn’t she notice?”
“I’d bet that she thought there was some scheme to give the bettors a good return anyway,” answered Guo Jian.
“I heard that the son-in-law involved in the matter sent the police officers who interviewed her sympathy flowers and a card wishing them a swift recovery from their ordeal,” smirked Mr Li. “The woman herself couldn’t understand why so much of her acquaintance was annoyed with her.”
We talked for a while longer, until the tea was finished, and then we made polite farewells. The Dangs and Mr Li went off to whatever they’d been doing before they’d run into me, Guo Jian went home to work on his Literature piece for the week, and I went north along the Boulevarde, then home along Heng Mien Street.
When I got home Master Que was smoking one of the garden rooms, turning over the pages of one of the books of no redeeming virtue he’d purchased for our train trip from the capital. I went over to him to let him know I was back and he remarked, “You were gone longer than I expected. Is everything all right?”
“I ran into Master Dang and one of his sons, Wang Dan, as well as one of my class mates. Master Dang treated us all to tea.” I sat down on a seat upwind of him.
“Courteous of him,” remarked Master Que. “Why did he treat you to tea? If he ran into you, I would have expected an exchange of bows and some polite conversation.”
I didn’t lie. “There was a waijin user involved. He would prefer not to meet you in circumstances where you might want to break his bones.”
“Did he rob you?” Master Que looked calmly at me and exhaled a stream of smoke out of the side of his mouth.
“I paid him the contents of my purse as a fee for the demonstration of his interesting waijin. He declined to give us lessons in it.” I was looking at the ground covers and admiring the display of different greens and variegation as we spoke.
“So, you and Master Dang contrived to arrange the world so that I would not be angry at this man?” Master Que took another draw on his cigarette.
“Yes.” I looked at him, “Besides, my classmate had already come after me because I was wearing clothes that would attract the wrong sort of attention in that neighbourhood. Aside from my possible contribution to the matter, it was not the sort of place where I wanted to start a fight – there were far too many bystanders that could be hurt.”
“Then I suspect that you handled the matter correctly,” replied Master Que. “Picking one’s ground is something that too few people, in my experience, give sufficient thought to.” He smiled at me and went back to his book.
I went inside to get ready for dinner and the new week.
This is now followed by It's Not All New Now.