Tong Nao was already opening the mat storage when I arrived, so I put down my things and helped him lay out the mats. Then we pulled out the Club’s supply of damas to check on their state. Apparently, the carry-over team members from last year all had their issued ones at home but there were going to be new team members this year, and they couldn’t be handed damaged garments to represent the university in. The pants were cream, and the tops were mid-blue and black with the Club logo on the back and the left upper chest in white. I was a little thrown by the absence of tabaki, but then I remembered that these were for an amateur competition, so the team members would be fighting barefoot.
Most of the dama were in reasonable condition, if in need of a laundering and airing to get rid of the musty smell. The sorting done, and because we didn’t want to interrupt Mei Ping’s report to the main business meeting on his work on the intra-university tournament, we had a look at what else was sitting in the storage space. There were stacks of old tournament records and books, a pair of banners, and a crate of folding furniture. Also, dust. So much dust.
“We need a vacuum cleaner,” said Tong Nao. “Anything else will take hours. We might need face masks too, and that stuff is still going to cling to our clothes.”
I looked at the thick coating of dust, and it was thick enough that it hadn’t been disturbed for at least a year, and said, “Let’s just get a garbage bin. I can deal with this – I’ve been practising recently.”
Tong Nao looked at me and asked, “How?”
I gave him a grin and answered, “Do you want the technical explanation before or after I show you?”
“Does that mean you’re not talking about something fancy using damp cloths?” Tong Nao had an interested expression on his face. “My mother swears by damp cloths and window cleaner with newspaper.”
“No,” I confirmed, “and we are particularly not talking about using wood polish. Now, let’s get that bin, preferably a lined one.”
Tong Nao found a bin, handed it to me, and then stood back, still confused and interested. I put the bin where I wanted it and took up my much-practiced dust-removal gi stance. The dust poured out of the back of the storeroom and into the bin like nobody’s business. There had been a serious accumulation back there, more perhaps than I thought. Tong Nao said something, but I was concentrating on getting all the dust into the bin and didn’t pay as much attention as, perhaps, I could have.
When the dust was all in the bin and pushed down so that it wasn’t likely to spill easily, I turned to find out what he’d been saying and found that I’d gained an audience. Gai Qiu looked delighted. Heng Huo and Tong Nao both looked astounded. Dang Huai and Jiang Dan looked angry, and Wu Ching was confused. Mei Ping looked regretful, and that was just the people that l knew. Dang Huai spoke first, and he pointed a finger at me and the bin as he asked, “What was that?”
“Hoshun techniques applied to controlled dust removal,” I told him. “It occurred to me while I was cleaning my new accommodation that, well, dust is dust. What works in the ring should work outside it too.”
“That was frivolous use of gi!” Dang Huai was working himself up into a fine state of indignation.
I indicated the bin and replied calmly, “That amount of dust isn’t frivolous.” I looked at it again and added, “Properly dispersed through the air and with a spark, we’ve probably got more than enough here to blow up the entire building.”
“Gi is not for mundane purposes!” Dang Huai was still working at getting on his high horse.
“Oh, so beating the crap out of each other isn’t a mundane purpose?” I channelled Master Que and some of his older students that I’d grown up training beside. “Or is it that you just disapprove of it because it’s something that you either don’t want to do or can’t do?” I felt my eyes narrow and added, “Or is it because you want it to be difficult for someone else to do?”
“You can’t talk to him like that!” I might have misstepped because now Jiang Dan was arcing up too.
Tong Nao said, “Actually, I think that in the gi-using community, she is his senior.”
Gai Qiu said happily, “You are the student of Shui Tzu Dan who won the national professional championship, aren’t you? I recognised your fighting style from the broadcast.”
I bowed politely. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Well, I’m not having you here!” Dang Huai continued on, “I’m club president and I won’t have you here disrespecting me and laughing at us all behind our backs!”
He was going to say something else, but Mei Ping interjected, “If you eject a national champion from the club for contradicting you on a matter like this then you, and only you, are going to make us the laughing stock of every gi club and Masters’ Association in Wugao, if not beyond. Think about why you’re upset. Seriously. Don’t ruin this for all of us.”
Dang Huai turned and snapped, “What do you mean, ruin this for all of us?”
“The national professional gi champion wants to be a member of our club, not to compete, but to hang out with other people who like gi. To try and make friends with at least some of us. Okay, you like to be the person calling the shots and making everyone fall into line with what you want, but that doesn’t mean that you get to break the club.” Mei Ping took a deep breath. “If you keep saying that we don’t need new members and turning away people who want to be here and help, then next year there won’t be a gi club here.”
“Why do you think that?” Jiang Dan seemed to have been diverted from being angry with me.
“Who would want to sponsor or join a club that rejected a current national champion in their sport over a known and defensible philosophical difference? One where the person pushing for the ejection holds the minority opinion?” Mei Ping looked like he was expecting to get kicked.
“He’s right, you know,” agreed Wu Ching. “The club’s constitution does say that it’s about more that the inter university team. You can’t be club president and cut out everything except the team.”
It was at this point that Gai Qiu sidled over to me and suggested that we take the bin of dust outside to the back of the building so that it could be collected with the rest of the rubbish. Some how Heng Huo wound up coming with us. I did feel guilty about leaving when I had been the cause of Dang Huai’s anger but by that time I was not being mentioned at all in the vigorous exchanges that were taking place between the senior club members. Retreat seemed to be a desirable option.
We found the rubbish collection point without trouble, and an older custodial gentleman who seemed prepared to be unpleasant on principle until he found out that all we wanted of him was to be told where we could get rid of our dust. He directed us to the correct skip and kept an eagle eye on us while we added our collection to the contents. He did ask where we’d gotten so much dust from and I explained that Tong Nao and I had been doing.
“You didn’t get that much dust out of one small store room,” he said flatly.
“I did use gi to collect it,” I told him apologetically.
“There’s a ventilation vent that opens into that room,” he told me. “Could you have pulled the dust out of that? Not that I’m complaining if you did, you understand. Less dust in the system means less work for me.”
I thought about it and said slowly, “I did assume the room was a closed box. If it wasn’t, that could make a difference – I may have sucked more dust into the room. I should check. Thank you for the thought.” I bowed politely.
He laughed at me. “You are a funny little thing, aren’t you? Keep bowing to cleaning staff and people will get confused about whether you’re a student or not. Now you three have shown that you might be responsible adults, you should go back to your meeting.” He made shooing motions with his hands, “Go on, get out of my space.”
We went back to rejoin the meeting and somehow, I started telling the other two about my wood polish experiment. As we walked back into the meeting I was saying, “And it turns out that commercial wood polishes are emulsions so there’s no one thing to grab onto when you try to manipulate it, and they do not act like dust suspended in water. It went everywhere. Fortunately, there was no carpet just there.”
Apparently, we’d walked into a pause in the conversation because everyone just looked at us. Dang Huai broke the silence by saying, “So, if you want us to have social activities, Sung Nai, are you going to organise them?”
“Honoured President,” the speaker was another member of the inter-university team, a young man with a resting face scowl, “that’s not fair. Student Sung has been at university less than three weeks. She may be perfectly capable of organising the social side of the club, but she shouldn’t be asked to do so while she’s still settling into a new environment. We’d be better off asking Cui Zhang or Qie Peng to run that side of things, not that either of them has been at meetings so far this year.”
Dang Huai blushed bright red. “I said some things to them….”
Tong Nao muttered something that I didn’t hear.
Jiang Dan remarked, “I don’t know if Qie Peng came back this year – I haven’t seen her at the core subject lectures and this is the first year that we haven’t shared a tutorial.”
“Would you like me to make enquiries and approach them?” Resting scowl face was being reasonable and sensible, and I needed to learn his name. “I’m sure I can think of a way to save your face, Dang Huai.”
“I accept that I shouldn’t have made it necessary but thank you, Wang Shuai.” The club president gave the other young man a brief bow. “Is there any other club business, now that we’ve covered the ways in which I seem to have made an ass of myself?” Dang Huai looked around the room and no-one said anything. “Very well, I declare this business meeting closed. Mr Secretary, I rely on you to produce the minutes.”
I was finishing the sparring gear set up for later in the evening so that Tong Nao had less to do after I left when Wang Shuai approached me. His manner was perfectly polite, but without preliminaries he said quietly, “So, who are you, Sung Nai?”
Looked up from what I was doing and answered, “Myself, but aside from that, I don’t think that I understand what you are asking?”
He gave me a wry smile and said, “I walked into that one, didn’t I? Alright, I’ll be blunt. Who were you in your previous incarnations?”
“That was blunt,” I agreed. “As far as I know, this is my only incarnation. I have been given to understand that I might be an incarnated lunar jade spirit, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything.” Or what business it might be of yours, I didn’t add.
“I, on the other hand,” he replied quietly, “have been through a number of mortal lives – not as many as some, but more than others. I’ve never been particularly important, but I was previously Shao Lun and Kuang Mao Sou. Among others.”
“I’m not familiar with either of those names,” I admitted.
“Good.” He smiled again. “I do not need to be memorable. Each life has its choices and challenges, and I prefer to move from one to the next with only my own burdens. I apologise for approaching you like this, but I will continue to be blunt. You seem to me to be one of the great souls, like the Solar Emperor or The Great She Elephant, both of whom I’ve met in previous incarnations.” When I looked confused, he added, “The Great She Elephant lives among the southern Zanji peoples. Some of my previous incarnations were widely travelled. My point is, the great reincarnating souls collect retinues of other reincarnating souls, like the Solar Court. If you have any control over the matter, please don’t attach me to your ambit.”
“Attach you to my ambit? Like a spell-servant?” That just tumbled out of my mouth.
He nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”
In my head I could see that leading to some very dark places. Places that I didn’t want to go. What I said was, “If I am what you think, I don’t want slaves or bound servants. It might be nice to have friends and acquaintances that I meet up with, either regularly or just every so often, but forcing people to come with me – no.”
“You might not get the choice,” acknowledged Wang Shuai, “but perhaps if you could try to find space to be kind amongst the requirements of necessity?”
Something about the way he said that made me ask, “Wang Shuai, what happened to your previous incarnations?”
He gave me that smile again. “I may have gotten myself executed for interfering in someone’s household arrangements because I was helping someone else who didn’t want to stay where they were.”
“It would be rude of me to ask for details that you don’t want to share, but that sounds fascinating.” I smiled back at him. “I may have to find out more about ambit. Have you noticed that it’s a gi subject that isn’t discussed much?”
He laughed. “So that you can monitor your attachments?”
“There’s that,” I agreed, “and that business in my bout with the Solar Emperor may have happened because of something that attached itself to my ambit in my previous bout. It’s like chemistry and electricity, what you don’t know can kill you.”
Wang Shuai went sober again. “Very true. I may have to read up on the subject myself. There used to be a very good text on the subject by Xi Tan Li, but I haven’t seen a copy since the invasion.”
“Would you mind if I discuss this conversation with my gi teacher?” I really didn’t want an angry reincarnated sorcerer coming after me, particularly one who was a competent gi fighter in this incarnation.
“It might be a good idea if you did,” replied Wang Shuai. “He may not think much of my fears, but he should know where you heard about Xi Tan Li’s book from. I’d give you a title, but I can’t bring it to mind at the moment. The first copy I read was decorated with scenes of lotuses and willows, but beyond that….”
He helped me finish my work, and then I made my good byes for the night.
This is now followed by Thank Heaven, Not Everything That Happens Is About Me.