This follows on from Our First Day With Guests and runs to 2,943 words.
There was another metal band playing that night at The Blackman’s Redoubt, a group of boys a few years older than me who went by Rings of the Fall. The guitar players were good, the drummer had found some deep voiced drums, and the three of them were doing well at producing the earth song vibrations I’d enjoyed so much last time. I thought that the lead singer was trying too hard to be interesting and his voice…it wasn’t the register, and it wasn’t the volume, because he could actually use a microphone properly, but he never seemed to be on the right note. With a large, bubbly, non-alcoholic lychee and rose drink plus the larger size bowl of spiced mixed nuts in front of me I was prepared to believe that this was normal, and I just didn’t know the music style particularly well yet. Five songs in, when they took a break, I wasn’t so sure.
It was earlier in the evening than it had been the previous week when Master Que and I had arrived, but the room wasn’t as crowded as it had been then and in the break several groups got up and left. I considered whether I should go and find somewhere else too, but I liked the atmosphere of The Redoubt and I was enjoying letting the beat wash through me, so I stayed. It may have been a mistake because the dissonance from the singing didn’t improve. One girl with piercings started heckling, and her friends hastily ushered her out, with the young man I assumed was her boyfriend carrying the group’s bags while the other boys in the group apologised to the staff and politely deflected the bouncers as the group left.
When the band took their second break I went to the restroom and found myself in a queue with another group of leather jacketed girls and another girl who looked like her face had come straight out of a Cong period woodcut, right down to the placement of the beauty spots. One of the leather jacket girls turned to me when I joined the line and said, “You’re new here, what do you think of tonight’s band?”
I answered honestly, “I like the beat, but I’m trying to work out whether the singing is a style thing that I’m unfamiliar with.”
“Girl, don’t you know anything? He’s just plain bad!” That was another of the leather jacketed girls.
“Well, I don’t know anything,” I replied in a self-deprecating fashion. “This is only the second time I’ve listened to this type of music, so I thought maybe he was trying some fancy dissonance thing. I mean, he obviously knows his way around the equipment.”
The girl paused and looked thoughtful. “It’s possible,” she agreed, “but you’d do that with your own songs that you’d written for it, wouldn’t you? That last one was a translation of a song from a foreign band called Dungeon Storm. Is this really only the second time that you’ve heard metal?” And that is how I found out that I like metal music.
“It is. My father isn’t fond of northern music and none of my older brothers and sisters ever played anything like this around the house.” I smiled and added, “I’m broadening my horizons.”
“So, you thinking about getting pierced?” This was another girl in the line.
At that point one of the cubicle doors opened, the occupant came out, the next person went in and then I replied, “I don’t think so. I’m also a gi fighter and metal jewellery gives your opponent a target, particularly if they can do anything with electricity or heat.”
My questioner nodded. “Good point. It’s not for everyone. You here with anyone?”
“Not tonight,” I admitted. “My gi teacher told me to get out of the house for a few hours and go make some friends. He specifically mentioned here, probably because we were here last week, and he doesn’t know a lot of local places yet.”
“Come and sit with us then, when we’ve all finished here,” offered the first girl who’d spoken to me. “Soong Bai here,” she indicated the girl with the beauty spots, “is with her boss, doing band writeups so she’s working. We, on the other hand, are here to have fun.”
Which is how I wound up sitting with a group of six self-proclaimed metal maidens and their boyfriends. I bought myself another lychee and rose sparkling drink and two bowls of nuts to share with the table and spent a couple of hours chatting, listening to good music with bad singing, and enjoying myself. I learned most of their names, and their laughter when I got the brothers Xiang confused with each other was kind.
Soong Bai and her boss, who were sitting at the next table, left after the next set so that they could review another band. That meant that they missed the set that was completely original songs being, we were told, played for the first time. It did occur to me that the timing might have been deliberate because critics, but in a couple of the new songs the lead singer’s off-note thing actually worked quite well and it might have been a pity that the critic hadn’t heard them. One of the new songs was about philosophy and made frank digs at avid followers of -isms in general, but by the third verse I was making notes of names to read up on. Interestingly, there were no sorcerer -philosophers in their list and I wasn’t sure whether I should be pleased or offended that my chosen reading hadn’t impinged enough on them sufficiently to be criticised.
My new friends and I stayed until the band finished. The Redoubt wasn’t closing for another couple of hours, but I had classes the next day, even if I had a late start, and the others seemed to have jobs. Xiang Xian, the older brother, asked whether I would be alright to get home on my own and I assured him that I would be fine. His girlfriend, Qiu Shuai, who was the girl who’d first spoken to me in the restroom, threw an arm around him and said, “She’s a gi fighter, remember? She can take care of herself.”
“She’s also just a kid still,” was his reply, and I began to revaluate my assumptions about his, and my other new friends’ ages. “Just because she can handle herself in tournaments, doesn’t mean that it’s safe for her to walk home alone.”
I smiled to take any sting out of my words and said, “Thank you for your concern, Mr Xiang,” a couple of his friends sniggered at that designation, “but I am a professional gi fighter of the Hoshun school.” I bowed politely as if introducing myself for the first time. “I have both won prize money and put opponents in the hospital. I have reason to believe that someone accosting me unpleasantly would come to regret it.”
The girl who’d asked about piercings, Fei Diao, chimed in, “Did you mean to? Put them in the hospital, I mean.”
“Only one of them,” I admitted, “but he thoroughly deserved it. I put some of my winnings from that tournament towards the treatment of his last victim and previous opponent.”
Fei Diao blinked and said, “That sounds very…magisterial.”
“I didn’t feel magisterial,” I assured her. “I was, not precisely angry about what he did to his opponent before me, but disapproving. Also, I didn’t plan it, but the opportunity presented itself, and I acted. I don’t normally hospitalise people, just give them the chance to reconsider the appropriateness of their choices.”
“How do you do that?” That was Fei Diao again.
“Suspending them by their ankles from nothing seems to work well,” I told her.
Her eyes widened. “I can see that it might. Get home safely then. I hope we see you around.”
I made it home safely on my own, exchanging bows with the ladies from The Lotus Pond on the way. When I got there, Master Que, Madam Ji Dan the retired seamstress, Madam Yang, and a middle-aged gentleman I didn’t know were playing mah-jong at the kitchen table. Master Que looked up from his tiles and said, “Ah, here is the head of our household, Miss Sung! Sung Nai, may I present Mr Li Ting? Mr Li is Yang Gai’s gi instructor and dropped in to check that we are fit and proper persons for he and Madam Yang to be associating with. As you can see, I’ve managed to finagle him into a game of mah-jong.”
Mr Li stood, bowed, and said, “Miss Sung.”
I returned his bow and, because something in his face and body shape triggered a sense of familiarity, I responded, “Mr Li, an honour and pleasure, I’m sure. I hope this isn’t a rude or presumptuous question, but are you related to a Mr Li Zi? I recently made his acquaintance.”
He gave me a wry smile. “Did you? He’s a cousin.” He sat back down and added, “I hear you’ve been having trouble with the Black Serpents Friendly Association.”
I smiled back and said, “All done with, I hope. Their Mr Teng introduced himself by trying to shoot me. With a handgun. And not just me. I’m sure they meant nothing personal by it; I and the people I was sitting with were just a conveniently placed potential target.”
“You’re remarkably calm about it for someone that Teng Jing tried to kill,” observed Mr Li.
“I can afford to be gracious. He failed, and there was no specific personal malice against me involved. Nor was I specifically targeted. Do you feel any obligation to pursue the matter on anyone’s behalf?” Don’t ask me where I got that from, but it sounds to me like something the villain from a television show aimed at older children would say. I would have said that I hadn’t watched must of that sort of thing, but, apparently, I’d absorbed enough from other people having it on for that type of line to stick.
I think Mr Li thought the same thing because his mouth quirked. The two older ladies looked concerned but Master Que just sat there, watching benevolently.
Mr Li replied gravely, “Not at all. My associates and I are not allied with the Black Serpents, nor do we need to gather favours from them at this time. Mr Teng has few friends, if any, outside the Black Serpents and they are in some disorder at the moment. I believe I have satisfied myself that it is safe for the Yangs to reside here until their flat is declared safe.”
“I’m glad that they have friends who are concerned for their wellbeing.” I gave him what I hoped was a sunny smile.
“Indeed, if we are not a society, or a community within a society, in which we care for each other, then what are we?” Mr Li smiled benevolently back at me.
Master Que observed mildly, “You’ve read Xao Geng then, Mr Li?”
“In part.” Mr Li turned to Master Que, and went on, “I am not convinced by all his discussions concerning property and communal ownership, but I agree with his ideas on mutual support. His support of Ershwartz’ views on the need for violent revolution I find frankly disturbing in our context – the old order was overthrown by the Invasion and the Occupation, and we have been rebuilding ever since.”
“I believe in the rule of law as a restraint on those with power, myself included.” Master Que nodded as he spoke. “I haven’t read Er Sha Tzu myself, but my brief acquaintance with Xao Geng’s work suggests that I would not enjoy living through their change process.”
“I did gain the impression that both of them thought that they would be directing the fighters of the proletariat rather than fighting in the frontlines themselves,” replied Mr Li. “One doubts their dedication to the concept of violent revolution extends to risking themselves.”
“And so we strive to improve our portion of the world without following their methodology.” Master Que went on, “I can speak to the changes in health care availability and access that have occurred in my lifetime. The desperate measures of my childhood and youth are no longer required."
“Indeed, that is so,” put in Madam Ji. “Girls I knew were sold to brothels so that medical and other family bills could be paid. The publicly funded system is a much better way of doing things. It doesn’t cover everything, but it covers so much.”
“Sometimes the brothels weren’t buying,” replied Master Que. “I was sold to my first master to pay for my mother’s treatment because we had no other way of affording it. I like to think that she was more comfortable or had a little longer that she could enjoy because of it.”
Madam Yang added, “And you read in the paper about these advisers who say that we can’t afford things like that coming out of the public purse, but people like us – we remember what it was like before it became a public expense. Have you noticed that the people who go on the costs of health care draining the public purse are the same people who want people to work for them cheaply?”
“And/or northerners,” elaborated Madam Ji. “They’ve already done their best to destroy our country, can’t they just leave us alone now?”
Madam Yang responded tartly, “And where would the profit be in that?” Both older ladies laughed.
“If you will all excuse me,” I slid my words into the break in the conversation, “I will go and get some sleep in preparation for tomorrow’s classes.” I bowed in farewell and made my escape with the sound of Mr Li’s chuckle behind me.
I woke to the usual penetrating chorus from the He household and got up so I could get in some gi practice before I went to class. Breakfast, after I’d honoured the Lao family shrine, was shared with Cousin Tang, who had an Elements of Tectonics tutorial at nine, and Lin Wu, who had one of her Literature tutorials at the same time. Lin Wu and I were listening to Cousin Tang telling us about his elective, and we were interested because he was a year ahead of us in our course and we knew from late secondary school that these decisions would be on us sooner than we expected, when Wei Ge dashed in with a lunch box, almost filled it with rice and shoved some pickles in on top and put the lid on.
He bowed to us and said, “I’m sorry if I seem rude, but I woke up at my usual time, and then realised that we’re further from the university here, and I’ve got a class at eight.” With that, he dashed from the room again and the three of us all checked the time.
Lin Wu asked, “Do you think he’s going to run the entire way?”
“He might have to,” said Cousin Tang. “I hope that’s not me in twelve months’ time.”
I finished my breakfast at that point and left to get some gi practice in before I had to leave to get to my Philosophy tutorial. I began on my own, just going through forms, and Master Que came into the practice room after a while, but he gestured to me continue, using the hand that wasn’t holding a steaming cup of tea. Smallest Dee bounced into the room as I was beginning my newest set of forms and as I started humming to myself, I saw Master Que get him to sit in the ground to watch.
When I had finished, I bowed to Master Que and then went over to him and Smallest Dee so we could talk more comfortably. Master Qu made a few small comments on my workout, then Smallest Dee asked, “Miss Sung, why did you have that jade-coloured light around you when you did that last lot of moves?”
“Jade-coloured?” I asked the question but both Master Que and I were looking at Smallest Dee with interest.
“Pale and a sort of greyish green colour, like my Mum’s jade bracelets.” He looked at us expectantly.
I replied slowly, “I think that you’re talking about the colour of my personal gi energy, Smallest Dee. If that’s what it is, I like your description – I’ve always thought that it looked like olive sludge. Was I glowing as I worked? I will have to work on my control.”
“Interesting.” Master Que turned back to Smallest Dee and asked, “Could you look at me for a few moments and tell me if see any lights around me?” He put his nearly empty teacup down, and then he did something with his hands, but what it was I wasn’t sure. Master Que had not taught me everything that he knew, but I already knew that.
“Is it a light if it’s black trying to be red?” Smallest Dee had his face screwed up as if he was looking hard for the right way to explain things.
“That’s a very good question,” replied Master Que as he picked up his teacup again, “and also a good description. It appears, Smallest Dee, that you can see gi energy being used when it isn’t normally visible. That is very interesting, and I believe I and your mother should speak about it. In the meantime, why don’t you help Miss Sung cool down by letting her match you in your exercises?”
This is now followed by The Last Day of the Second Week.