I announced myself with a cheery, “Good evening, Master Que! Everyone, this is my gi teacher and manager, Master Que Tzu. If you have an interest in professional gi fighters, his professional name is Shui Tzu Dan and I am fortunate to have his guidance.” I bowed politely in his direction, and went on, “May I make known to you my fellow students Lin Wu, Xiang An, Wei Ge, Li Zhen, Tang Tu, Han Er, and Hen Xiao?”
My fellow students bowed to Master Que, who bowed in return, knife still in hand. When he’d straightened again Xiang An said with an apologetic glance at me, “As a point of fact I’m a tutor, not a student, sir. First through Third Year Geology.”
Master Que looked at him for a moment and then grinned. If you didn’t know him it could be a disconcerting expression. “Oh, you think I’m the head of the household! That’s my esteemed student here, Miss Sung Nai. She pays the rent, not me. The family shrine, however, still is dedicated to the Lao family, our landlords.” He turned slightly and addressed his cooking audience, “Ladies and attendant grandsons,” the boys giggled, “this is my student, Sung Nai, who has successfully launched her professional career as a gi fighter. She will be eligible to receive a professional name at this year’s moon festival. Miss Sung, I have taken the liberty of offering the shelter of your household to: Madam Dong Mei and her grandson, Dong Wei; Madam Ji Dan; Madam Yang Ying and her grandson, Yang Gai; and Madam Hua Bao, and her grandsons, Dee Zhi and Dee Yue. Madam Hua’s daughter, Madam Dee Lu is also staying with us, but she is a nurse with an evening shift today, so she is working right now.”
All of them bowed to me and I bowed gravely back. “Welcome. I hope you will be comfortable with us until you can return home. Master Que, have you given any thought to bedroom assignments yet?”
Master Que resumed chopping the spring onions. From the bowls of other vegetables that were already prepared, I assumed he was making stir fried something and breakfast pickles for eighteen. “I’ve taken the liberty of giving the ladies here the rooms on the ground floor of the western building,” he told me. “Your dust trick proved very useful, I must say. Perhaps three of these young men could join me in the rooms on the top floor of the eastern building, and the other three could go in three of the rooms on the top of the western building? That would leave a room over there to put the excess furniture in. Then we can clear out two rooms in the main building for the young ladies.” He stopped chopping and started adding sliced vegetables to two large pickling jars that I hadn’t seen before. “After she has slept, we should check with Madam Dee what sleeping arrangements will work best with her shift work.”
“You seem to have considered everything,” I told him. “Do you need my help with dinner?”
“Thank you,” he nodded, “but all the preparation is done, I just need to cook. I’m doing a noodle thing I perfected in one of my solitary bachelor periods for when I had people over. After I came home this afternoon, I went out again and did some grocery shopping to carry us through the next few days. I’m sure the big rice cookers will come in handy.” He pointed over his shoulder at two new rice cookers.
I recognised the brand and model, “Those are what my mother got last year when she needed to replace the ones in her kitchen. They’re very good, and sturdy too. I’ll start clearing dust out of the rooms and rearranging furniture, shall I?”
Dust was easily dealt with, and I did the rooms on the top floors of the east and west buldings first because there were no decisions to be made as to which rooms we would be using. Theoretically there should have been on the top floor of the west building, but we looked in the door of the southern most room and made a unanimous decision to store excess furniture from the other rooms in there. I removed the dust, but the décor was frankly overpowering to our modern sensibilities, although possibly one of the girls with piercings I’d seen at The Blackman’s Redoubt would have liked it.
We raided Professor Lao’s linen cupboard then I left my male guests to organise which room each of them would be in and make up their beds. Han Er, Lin Wu and I then set about choosing rooms for them in the main house. The ground floor was out because there weren’t any bedrooms there. Well, there were rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they were currently set up as parlors or reception rooms and we weren’t prepared to go moving beds around between floors. Having agreed on that, we went up the stairs to the first floor and, perhaps because we were all girls, we started by looking at the bathrooms. The bathroom closest to the late Professor Lao’s bedroom was, unsurprisingly, the better one with the most modern fittings and the best water flow. None of us thought that occupying his room was appropriate so we looked at the other rooms on that floor. I persuaded them that they wanted rooms overlooking the courtyard and not gazing at the wall of the backside house, so Han Er wound up in the room next to the late professor’s and Lin Wu was in the room next to her.
The front corner room next to both the late professor’s room and the stairs was perfectly nice, but the connecting door into the bedroom next door made them both slightly uncomfortable. I didn’t blame them.
I dusted the two chosen bedrooms and the bathroom and then we revisited the linen cupboard. Han Er and Lin Wu went off to make their beds and I went around making sure that everyone had bath towels and face washers. Then it was time for dinner.
Master Que and I had been eating in the kitchen because the two of us needed no more room than that at the kitchen table and we were, effectively, camping in the house until the sale went through. Tonight, though, Master Que had opened up the dining room and we all ate together in there. He made very sure to put me at the head of the table, though I would have conceded the position to him. He also sat at my right hand and put Ji Dan, the retired seamstress, on my left. There was more going on with that arrangement than I was prepared to think about with my revison for the day and preparations for tomorrow’s tutorials still to do, so I made polite conversation and attempted to look generally benevolent.
We were at the stage of deciding if we wanted seconds when Yang Gai, down near the end of the table, started objecting to his grandmother’s plans to get him to bed shortly. I first heard an angry, “But I don’t have to go to school tomorrow!”
Master Que commented loudly but calmly, “I had not heard that the local schools were closed tomorrow.”
“They’re not,” replied Madam Hua and Madam Yang together.
“Then, young Yang,” said Master Que, “you should attend tomorrow to make sure that all your friends are safe, given the current emergency conditions.” There was a petulant snort from Yang Gai’s direction, and I could see the other boys were looking interested in the whole idea of not going to school too. “However, if you are not going, then I will have to set you lessons. We would begin with half an hour’s basic gi forms, to shake out the overnight kinks, then go on to character practice. I know I have some chalk, so practicing a single character one hundred times on the garden paving shouldn’t be a problem for you. Then we can go for a walk before lunch to obtain writing supplies and enough copies of Tales of Old Baoding for all of you: it was the book my master taught me to read from and I have fond memories of it. Then we would have to prepare lunch, eat it, and clean up afterwards because everyone should know how to feed themselves and it would be remiss of me not to teach you. After lunch we would start you reading the Tales, probably for an hour or so, and then we could go over the receipts from our shopping and make sure that they added up and I had gotten the right change. We would, of course, finish with more gi forms for half to three quarters of an hour. May I ask which school you are training with?”
Yang Gai was looking like an animal caught in the headlights of a car at this point and the other two boys his age had expressions that told me that they were questioning what their friend was getting them into. The youngest boy, Dee Yue, though was bouncing enthusiastically in his seat. “Can I do that too, please? Please?”
Master Que smiled benevolently and asked, “Wouldn’t you rather go to school and see you friends tomorrow, Smallest Dee?”
“I don’t go to school yet,” he replied with the tone of someone who felt much put upon. “Everyone says I’m too small yet, ‘cause I still need a nap in the afternoons.”
“I sometimes feel the need to sleep in the afternoons myself,” acknowledged Master Que gravely, “but often that is because I’ve been running around on the middle of the night. If your mother and grandmother are agreeable, we could certainly do some of those things tomorrow. However, your brother and his associates have not yet told me which gi schools they are training with.” He looked at the older boys and added, “Gentlemen?”
Yang Gai said defiantly, “I don’t go to a gi school. I have lessons with my dad’s friend, Mr Li. He says gi tournaments for kids are a silly thing.”
“That sounds an entirely proper arrangement,” replied Master Que gravely. “Please pass my respects to Mr Li. When I consider my own experiences in such things as a participant, I can now see problems with them that were not apparent to me at the time.”
Dong Wei piped up, “Dee Zhi and I go to Master Cheng’s school. We’re Laosung! What’s wrong with tournaments? I want to be better than Lai Sa because he says he’s going to win all the tournaments when we’re old enough and the rest of us are all babies who can’t do anything.”
“Some of the tournaments of my extreme youth weren’t about gi,” replied Master Que. “There were…inappropriate issues and influences involved in the setting in which they took place. Gambling, for instance,” he added when it was clear that Dong Wei was going to ask a question. “I understand that these days such things are much more carefully controlled.”
“So,” said Dee Zhi, “we can either go to school, or you’ll find us things to do that you think we should be doing?”
“Exactly,” replied Master Que, sipping from a cup of brown liquid that was probably tea. “I would also like to point out that I have considerably more practice at getting my own way than any of you do.”
Dee Yue asked, “If they go to school tomorrow, can I still have lessons?”
“Yes,” replied Master Que. “If your mother and grandmother don’t want you to be Hoshun, then we can avoid the school specific moves.”
“Oh,” commented Hua Bao, the Dee boys’ grandmother, much amused, “we get a say, do we?”
“You have had more opportunity to get to know Dee Yue than I have,” replied Master Que, looking particularly disreputable at that moment between his squint and the cup of brown liquid, “and it is reasonable to assume that you have his best interests at heart. For most people the choice of a gi school doesn’t particularly matter – they will achieve their best skills and expertise by diligent practice and study with a competent and engaged master. Other people, like Miss Sung here, are so clearly attuned to a particular aspect of gi that the choice of school is important if they are to achieve their best.”
Curious, I asked, “Could that be one of the reasons that Master Goh and the teachers I approached before him wouldn’t take me on as a student?”
Master Que turned to look at me and answered, “Possibly, but I still think that the fact you were wandering the streets on your own with a packet of biscuits asking gi masters you didn’t know to teach you may have had more to do with it.”
Ji Dan, the elderly lady on my left, remarked, “I thought that parents arranged their children’s gi classes, but perhaps it’s different in your home province?”
“It’s not,” I confessed, “but my parents were ill and distracted at the time – my mother was unwell following the birth of one of my younger brothers and I’m the eighth child, so there was a lot going on. I remember thinking that I would have to take care of gi lessons myself and apparently I thought that the thank you gift thing was when you actually got a teacher to take you on….”
Tang Tu, one of the older Earth Sciences students, remarked, “Not many people have families that big anymore. I know that my paternal grandmother keeps telling my mother how much easier she has it than the daughter of my father’s second cousin who has thirteen children. Mainly that she copes so well, and the children are so well behaved while my mother has trouble getting the four of us to conform to Grandma’s ideas of good behaviour.”
I looked at him and asked, “Mr Tang, who are your father and paternal grandfather? I’m one of thirteen children, and my mother was Tang Fen before she married my father. Her father is Tang Po.”
“My father’s Tang Pang, a son of Tang Zhi by his second wife. Does your family live in Jingshi?” He was sitting up straighter now and looking more animated.
“Yes,” I confessed. “Was your Tang Zhi’s grandfather Tang Zhang of Baimenkou?”
“He was.” Tang Tu stood and bowed. “Thank you, Cousin Sung, for giving me shelter at this difficult time.”
I stood too and returned the bow. “It is an honour, Cousin Tang, to have you as my guest. I’m sure that it will also be a pleasure. Perhaps we might speak of family matters later?”
“That would be pleasant,” he agreed and we both sat down again to finish our meals.
We grabbed some time in the relative privacy of the kitchen by volunteering to do the washing and drying of dishes. Master Que was also there, supervising his woks and the rice cookers so that nothing untoward happened to them. I opened the conversation while Tang Tu had his rubber gloved hands in the soapy water and I’d just picked up a tea towel by saying, “About the family. I would prefer it if you didn’t tell everyone that you’ve run into me here.”
“There has been some discussion of your absence from home,” he acknowledged. “Precipitate disappearances can lead to ill adventures.”
“There was a serious suggestion for my future that would have negated any chance of me furthering my education,” I told him. “It would have solved the suggester’s problems but not mine.”
“Would there have been any advantage for you in the scheme?” Tang Tu was briskly washing cutlery as we spoke.
“I might have been fortunate”, I admitted, “but it sounded likely to turn into an unmitigated personal disaster for everyone directly involved.”
Tang Tu continued washing quietly for a short time then asked, “Who did your father want you to marry?”
“An unknown and unidentified middle-aged bureaucrat, in accordance with my birth prediction,” I replied, drying chopsticks and dropping them back in the right drawer as I did so. “I can’t see that I could hold such a gentleman’s interest for any length of time at this stage of my life. If he wanted someone to talk to, would I be able to understand his concerns? Would he consider my concerns to be matters of any weight?”
“I can see why you would want to create space between yourself and that proposition,” acknowledged Tang Tu. “As you say, you might have been fortunate but the chances of the two of you being happy together seem small. Particularly, if I may say so, your father was going to choose the gentleman concerned. One’s parents’ tastes in such things are not always one’s own.”
“My father was also against my taking a tertiary education final sweep place, which was how I got in here,” I admitted. “He seemed to think that any course that still had places open wasn’t going to be good enough.”
Tang Tu half turned, his hands still in the soapy water, and asked, “Cousin Sung, what were your marks in the final exams?”
I told him.
He laughed. “You do realise that the university cherry-picked you, don’t you? They think you’re the sort of student that gives them prestige.”
Suddenly guilt-struck I asked, “No-one else would have lost their place so I could have one, would they?”
He gave me a kind smile. “Once a place is offered, they can’t withdraw it. If you were given a place in the final sweep, then it’s because there were places open or because they made a place for you. You deserve to be here, and you haven’t deprived anyone else of their opportunity.” He paused and added, “I don’t believe I will find it necessary to mention to my parents that I have met you here for some time.”
This is now followed by Our First Day With Guests.