I put down my things, sat on one of the other seats around the small table he was using, and asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I want you to win, of course,” he told me, punctuating this statement by exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke. “I also want to rub a certain young Master’s nose in his own ignorance.”
“Oh?” It seemed the only sensible response I could make.
“I have no objection to child prodigies and their ilk,” went on Master Que, “but I object to people who claim that in their brilliance they’ve invented something that people have been doing for centuries.”
I asked, “What does he think he’s invented?”
“Indentures,” replied Master Que. “He’s taken on several full-time students who are, whether he likes it or not, apprentices. The rest of the Taozhu masters are appalled, partly because his training contract excludes all the traditional protections from abuse for apprentices. He even denies that they are apprentices; apparently he’s never read the legal definition.”
I asked, “Is it your problem to solve, sir?”
“Today I saw the way he treats those two,” said Master Que darkly. “It is my duty to intervene. I was never treated like that, and I was bought.”
“Have you considered throwing a labour law specialist at him?” I had a vague recollection of an industrial dispute back in Jingshi that had involved trainees of some sort. “Isn’t there something about observed workloads that lets members of the public lodge complaints?”
“You’re thinking of the Moxiang Sweet Factory business back in Jingshi, aren’t you?” Master Que smiled at me. “I believe that the local branch of the Taozhu Masters’ Association is trying to deal with this in-house, but perhaps someone has a student with an appropriately qualified parent.” He nodded. “We should be seeing some of the Taozhu Masters tonight, and I can make the suggestion then.” He smiled at me, “Thank you. See you in the training room in half an hour?”
I did my arriving home things, trained with Master Que for an hour, and then we got ready to go to dinner at The Riverside Terrace. I even managed to fit in some of my reading before we left.
This evening we were greeted effusively by the hostess when we arrived to be seated, and I took the opportunity to ask after our waitress from the previous week. “She’s well, thank you for asking. I trust that you are also recovered from the events of last week, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you.” I smiled back at her and realised that it hadn’t occurred to me that I might not have gotten over the events of the previous week with just a few nights’ good sleep. For some reason I’d assumed that being shot at had been worse for the waitress than it had been for me. Mr Teng had, in fact, tried to kill me twice, and all I felt about him when I considered the matter was…compassion. Which was probably a bit odd of me, and something I should certainly discuss with Master Que, if the opportunity came up. Tonight, however, was about other things.
We were not seated at our previous table tonight, partly because it had been replaced by a large flower arrangement. Instead, we were still on the elevated section but about two tables to the right. As we walked into the dining room I exchanged bows with Gow Sien Tong who was sitting at a table with a group of men who were wearing brocade jackets with woven traditional air symbols and designs incorporated in their patterns over black trousers. After we were seated I noted that Master Ran and Master Dang were eating together at a table on the main floor, accompanied by four people who were not Dang Wan. Master and Madam Kung were at a table for two, and some of the other faces were beginning to look familiar, so I began to construct my own table-visiting list for the evening in my head.
Master Que and I ordered a mixed entrée plate, to be followed by rice, the chicken special, and a crustacean chilli dish to share. Neither of us had heard of ‘bugs’ before, and our waitress, who was not the same one we’d had the previous week, told us that the fishing season for them had just started and that they were delicious. We ordered tea to drink and asked for extra cups. Master Que then left me to mind the table and went off to talk to people, including the Taozhu Masters. I was watching him work his way smoothly through the tables when Mr Yuan came by to exchange greetings.
After drinking a little tea, he said, “I was gratified, as were my colleagues, to receive your signed copy of the agency agreement. I’m sure that you will shortly be receiving advice from your legal advisors that the agreement is in force.” He smiled.
“I will endeavour to have no ill-considered issues in train,” I assured him as we toasted each other with tea.
The entrée order arrived then, so Mr Yan moved on and Master Que returned to our table to eat.
“I passed on your suggestion about a labour lawyer and my idea about a qualified parent to several of the Taozhu Masters who are here tonight,” Master Que told me happily. “I still want you to defeat that fool’s students, but the weight of public and official scrutiny on his affairs won’t be a bad thing. He needs to learn that when others he doesn’t respect point things out he doesn’t like, they may know what they’re talking about.”
I finished chewing my piece of salt and pepper squid and commented, “You think he’s yet to learn wisdom?”
“I don’t think he’s realised yet that he lacks it,” corrected Master Que. “At least I don’t have to decide whether to introduce you to him tonight. Apparently, he prefers the ‘edgy’ atmosphere at the Songbird Café.” Master Que sounded almost primly disapproving.
“Didn’t you describe that as a hive of iniquity? And triad controlled?” I looked Master Que in the eye and cheekily suggested, “Perhaps we could recruit Master Dang, Dang Wan, and Gou Jian to go with us on an educational visit to this establishment?”
“What would your classmate do in such a visit?” asked Master Que severely.
“Warn everyone else to get out while they still can?” I grabbed the last piece of squid on the entrée plate and popped it in my mouth.
Master Que looked at me with may be mock severity. “Are you suggesting that we might be a danger to other patrons of that fine establishment?”
“I’m suggesting that you, Master Dang, and this young Taozhu Master might wind up having a vigorous ethics discussion,” I replied. “You and Master Dang have, you told me, an established record of property damage.”
“It would be impolite to go to his school with the intention of breaking it in an ethical discussion,” said Master Que, gesturing with his chopsticks as he spoke. “Likewise, the Songbird Café without the prior agreement of the owners. If I decide I need to take action against this young man, I may need to challenge him to a duel.”
“Having his students be thoroughly defeated in the tournament is probably a better start, if the Taozhu Masters can’t handle him,” I commented as Master Que ate a prawn dumpling.
“Oh, I agree,” answered Master Que. “You should defeat them anyway.” He picked up a deep-fried morsel and dunked it in soy sauce. “If you meet them in the tournament at all. They could get themselves eliminated without facing you. What you need to do is pay attention here and at your university group to what people are saying about other students who might be entering. Consider it an exercise in information gathering.” He smiled sweetly at me and then ate the food held by his chopsticks.
After we finished our entrée Master Que ducked off to see someone, and I was joined by Master Ran, who sat in one of our spare chairs and said, “You made an interesting choice in speaking to those reporters last week, girl.”
“I did?” I picked up a spare teacup and the teapot and asked, “Would you like some tea, Master Ran?”
“Not this time, thank you.” She waved my offer away with a gesture. “As I was saying, you chose not to give them anything but praise for the actions of others. Made yourself sound like you’d done nothing at all. Probably helped that boy, Gow Sien Tong, get his new job with Master Feng Gua’s Four Winds stable. Certainly got me a lot of very respectful questions.”
“I’m sorry if I inconvenienced you,” I bowed in my seat as I answered, “but I admit that all I wanted at the time was to go home to bed. I had an early class the next morning.”
“Well, I was commanding, wasn’t I?” She grinned at me. “And I got to see them try to recover from having let you go without really interviewing you. That poor girl who shoved her microphone in your face was getting a real roasting from her superior about not getting more out of you, until his camera man pointed out he’d told her not to waste too much effort on interviewing the student fighters. He sort of twitched at about that point.” She smiled in reminisce. “I remember his father as a rather annoyingly opinionated little interviewer, and this one seems to be a little better, but there is still scope for improvement. At least the son doesn’t try to bully his interviewees.”
“If you’re a reporter, wouldn’t bullying people that you get information off be unproductive?” This conversation was heading off into unexpected territory with a vengeance.
“Apparently not in the view of the elder Mr Zhang,” answered Master Ran. “I believe that he believes in bullying everyone he considers to be beneath him in the social hierarchy. All three of his wives have left him, and half of his children don’t talk to him.”
“That seems unfortunate,” I observed.
“From what Que Tzu has said, you’re currently estranged from your parents,” observed Master Ran. “Why is that?”
“I left home precipitately without talking to them about it first,” I admitted quietly. “My father had formed a scheme to see me married to some as yet unselected gentleman within a year, while I believed the scheme could only end in disaster. It seemed a good time to test Master Que’s belief that I might have some success on the professional gi circuit.”
“So, you ran away from home,” said Master Ran. “With Que Tzu.” She smiled broadly. “There’s a time when that would have been an enormous scandal, but it’s clear to anyone with any nous who’s seen the two of you together that there is nothing scandalous about your relationship. Compared to some, it’s positively old fashioned. Que Tzu was rather good looking, in a distinctly disreputable way, when he was younger.”
“I believe he has mentioned having body-warm undergarments thrown at him,” I mentioned quietly.
“That happens,” agreed Master Ran. “I can’t see that it helps anyone unless the thrower has had the forethought to label their garments with their contact details.”
“Precisely,” nodded Master Ran. “Making a spectacle of yourself without achieving anything has always struck me as fairly pointless. Will you be taking part in the student tournament at the end of the month?”
“That’s our plan, at this stage,” I told her with a smile. “Do you have any students entering, Master Ran?”
“I don’t have any who want to turn professional at the moment,” she replied easily. “One of my former students has a student who’ll be taking part. He’s consistently won his amateur leagues and tournaments for the past few years, and he is very good.” She paused and added, “I also think it would be good for him to be exposed to a bigger pool of talented fighters who don’t care about his amateur wins. Or help him with his transport,” she added thoughtfully.
“May I ask who he is?” Master Que had told me to find out about my potential opponents.
“He’ll be fighting as the student of Piao Dee Zhen,” answered Master Ran. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, my table is being served, so I should get back to my food.”
“Of course, Master Ran,” I stood and bowed. “Thank you for coming and speaking with me.” She gave me a friendly nod in acknowledgment as she left, and then our own food was arriving.
Master Que returned and sat down to address the main course of the meal with some enthusiasm. We both tried the crustacean dish first and agreed that it was delicious. After that Master Que asked, “Did Master Ran tell you anything about any potential opponents for the tournament?”
“A student of one of her former students,” I answered. “Apparently an amateur champion. Master Ran thinks that broadening his experience might be character building. I’ve just realised that I don’t know which school Master Ran belongs to.”
“She’s Laosung,” Master Que replied. “There’ll be several more Taozhu taking part, at least one Chiangshi, and that’s the limit of my information at this point. We do, however, have several more weeks to see what we can find out.”
“When you say ‘several more Taozhu taking part’ does that mean that the school is planning to teach the young Master that you disapprove of a lesson?” The Taozhu were, with the Chiangshi and the Hoshun, one of the three smaller gi schools and they wouldn’t normally be expected to make up more than a sixth of any tournament entry pool, statistically speaking.
“I think they may be constructing a corner for him to be backed into," replied Master Que, speaking carefully. “Master Shuai is a great deal smarter than I am, and I believe that he is setting matters in motion.”
“Master Shuai? Should I be aware of him?” I tried some of the chicken dish, which was pleasantly soothing in contrast to the slow attack of the subtle chilli in the crustaceans.
“He’s a retired army colonel,” supplied Master Que. “He fought professionally for two years after he left the army under the name Dang Fa Zui, and then he retired from that and set up his school in Xin Cang – it’s a riverside locality in the near western suburbs of the city.” He added reflectively, “My take on what he said was that he has several successful amateur students who are trying to withdraw gracefully from competition in the face of others wanting them to continue.”
“And a professional bout will do that for them,” I nodded. “Plus helping to make the competition in the student tournament that much stiffer. I don’t know that Master Shuai is smarter than you, Master Que, but his planning does seem to be efficient.”
“And, if I’m right, then he’s sacrificing no-one for his own purposes,” pointed out Master Que. “He achieves his aim, and his students get something that they want. I can see several things that could go wrong, but as all the participants will be students fighting under their masters’ aegis those outcomes seem less likely.”
I paused, my chopsticks holding a piece of bamboo shoot from the chicken dish, and asked, “Do we need to change my training program to take all of this into account?”
Master Que poured himself some more tea, and replied, “I can assure you that your training is aimed at making you and keeping you competitive. So far I have learned nothing that inclines me to vary the build-up that I have planned.” He smiled and added, “I shall have to have a conversation with Master Kung to find out a little more about those young men that he would like to see discomforted.”
This is now followed by In Which the Minutiae of Daily Life Do Not Grind.