On the third day I awoke to a commotion as Tornado Hong swept my studiously arranged books and notes and brushes from the desk and into my pack like he was collecting garbage.
I got up to protest but found my arms and legs were already tied up and my mouth was full of what I hoped was not another sock. Lightning Mao loomed over me while checking that my gag was tight enough.
“Shut up,” he said.
I hadn’t said anything.
He made a fist and then there was nothing.
A dull throbbing heat came to me out of the darkness. Then nausea. It was my pulse.
I heard voices from a thousand miles away. Some yelling? Too muddled by distance to make out a word of it. Something tugged at my head and the darkness was replaced by a blinding white light.
I groaned but it got stuck somewhere in my throat. Wait, was that a sock? I tried to cough. Nothing came out but it pounded in my head. There was an emptiness where the nausea had filled me and new information rushed in to replace it.
That was the sun. We were outside. It was still morning. I was standing but only because I was being held up. People were yelling at each other.
“Toss me your sword!” someone said just behind my own ear. A woman. Six Devils Lin!
Was that her arm holding me up? Was that her knife pressing against my spine?
“You came alone?” someone said ahead of me. I cracked one eye open and saw a blurry patch of gray standing against a backdrop of blinding daylight.
Jingwei! This was the trap!
I shouted a warning but it gurgled to death behind the sock in my mouth. Six Devils Lin tightened her grip. The point of her knife dug into my back to remind me how much more was behind it.
“You see anyone?” Lin said.
My senses were returning but there was still a thick fog between them and myself. I had a vague sense of being in an enclosed space. An alleyway?
“Count of three,” Jingwei said. “I drop the sword and you drop the meat.”
“One,” Lin said.
Fine details were still beyond my reach but I knew the other Calamities had to be hiding nearby. If only I could signal Jingwei before it was too late!
“Two,” Jingwei said.
I struggled and there was a white-hot spark of pain in my back. The knife!
“Three,” Lin said.
The fog lifted from my vision as Jingwei took the scabbard from her belt.
She held it out.
She tossed it at my feet.
Except she missed my feet and the bottom end of the scabbard slammed right into my gut. This had a number of effects. All of them beneficial in hindsight but none of them pleasant at that moment.
First, the sock ejected from my mouth. I was thankful for that but surely there was an easier way?
Second, I doubled over from the impact. This knocked Lin off balance since she was still holding me.
Third, to keep from falling over completely she had to let go of me.
Fourth, no more knife on my back, I realized, while falling to my knees!
Fifth, Jingwei must’ve started running as soon as she threw her sword because she was already planting her foot on my back and launched herself at Lin who had released her human shield.
Sixth, I heard their collision and the clatter of Lin’s knife against the ground. I doubt it was her only one.
Seventh, three roars rose as one. I looked up and pushed through the tears that had welled up in my eyes.
Tornado Hong led the charge with Lightning Mao and Thunder Wu following close. They’d been hiding further down the alleyway behind Jingwei. Their weapons spun and flashed. They cursed and howled as they moved in for the kill.
Nothing stood between them and Jingwei. Nothing worthy of notice. Just a useless heap on his knees gasping for breath like a fish wrapped up in scholar’s robes.
Indeed, all three men ignored me entirely. They were right to do so. But then it took them completely by surprise when they tripped over the scabbard I’d stuck between their feet!
Hong kicked it so hard I feared my arm would rip out of its socket. I held firm. He stumbled forward and almost caught himself but Mao and Wu barely had time to look surprised before they were half-trampling and half-falling into him. They collapsed in a howling and cursing tangle of limbs and weapons. Each attempt to extricate the former from the latter injured someone.
I started to stand but then Jingwei yanked me up by the back of my collar. We were already running by the time my feet found the pavement.
I looked back. The Three Calamities littered the alley. They got loose from one another but they were so sliced up from the effort of disentangling one another that pursuit was a foolhardy enterprise. Only Six Devils Lin still stood and she did so with considerable effort. She pressed both hands tight to her left side as she hobbled toward her comrades. She winced with every step.
I supposed the marriage was off.
The Fragrant Horse is a lovely teahouse with a terrible name. Perhaps its owner lost a bet. Judging only by every horse I have ever seen, it would be most difficult to believe anyone in the history of the world has ever referred to anything about a horse as “fragrant” without counting euphemisms or irony.
If there is a single advantage to the chronic overpopulation of Hanzhou, it is exceedingly simple to disappear into the crowd. An hour later we were sitting in a teahouse doing our best to look like we weren’t running away from anything, especially not a big sword fight.
That meant hiding the sword. It was wrapped in a spare robe and stuffed as far into my pack as we could manage. My plan was, if questioned, to claim that it was a large brush for writing out ceremonial banners.
Jingwei’s hand kept gravitating to rest on the hilt no longer hanging from her belt. It was like she was trying to scratch an itch on a missing limb.
“To be honest, I didn’t know whether or not you were going to rescue me,” I said.
“I didn’t rescue you,” she said with all the emotion of a cabbage. It was the first thing she’d said to me since we bested The Three Calamities.
“It certainly felt like a rescue,” I said.
“Had nothing to do with you. I got history with that woman,” she said.
“Six Devils Lin told me you killed her sister,” I said.
“Someone had to.” She said it like she was reporting a fact.
A fair point, I supposed. The wulin are often called upon to deliver justice that would otherwise evade the law.
“And it would’ve stayed history, but you went and dragged it up,” she said.
“When did I do that?”
“When you said my name.”
“Oh, is that all it takes then?” I said in in a rather more rude tone than I expected. It had been a trying few days and I was feeling brave. Also her sword was wrapped up as part of our attempt to blend in so she couldn’t get at it immediately. “Tell me, does the mere mention of your name always bring about calamity?”
I had the sense her fingers wrapped around the air where the handle of her sword should’ve been. She took in a deep breath and released it slowly.
“Every action has its consequence, Gao,” she said. “If your books didn’t teach you at least that much then they’re more useless than I thought.”
That was going too far. I can be insulted. It does me no injury. But insulting the Four Books is an insult to history!
Moral authority derives from Heaven to the Emperor and from Him to civilization. It follows that acting in accordance with the will of Heaven is the ultimate expression of the natural moral order of the universe. It is only through the Four Books that we understand morality, and therefore, the will of Heaven. Moral governance is possible only through study of the Four Books. Without them there is no justice, only chaos and barbarism.
Everything of any worth accomplished within the Empire across its vast history is the direct or indirect result of the truths contained in the Four Books!
But this was not the time for that discussion. For one thing it’d require visual aids and besides I was still desperately low on ink.
“Then it seems the consequence of their kidnapping me was a rescue,” I said in an effort to return to our original topic.
“They thought they had something I wanted. They were wrong but they didn’t know that. I used it to bring them into the open so I could get them off my tail,” she said.
“It’s bad enough they were using me as bait, but you were too?!” I said much louder than intended.
Everyone around us tried to look like they weren’t staring but they did a terrible job of it. We went silent and soon lost their attention.
“Am I only alive because I was a useful way to settle an old score?” I said. Or, more accurately, hissed.
“Not the only reason,” she said in a quiet calm voice. “A woman travelling alone draws too much attention.”
“I had no idea I was so talented. Bait and distraction. All at once!”
“Gao,” she said.
“No, no. Thank you for this. I see now the error of my ways. It would’ve been a waste of my skills to lock them away in the halls of academia.”
“You made yourself bait when you kept following me around after announcing my name to every scumbag in town,” she said.
For the sake of our friendship I allowed this point to go unchallenged.
“All I did was turn it to our advantage,” she said. “And doing that saved your life, so what’re you complaining about?”
“The indignity of it all!”
“Which would rather be? Dignified or alive?” she said.
“Is it so greedy to desire both?”
“What we want and what we get in this life ain’t the same,” she said.
She was right of course.
There exists a philosophical argument that would favor the dignified corpse over the embarrassing life. The broad strokes of the argument fell into place in my mind but I pushed them away before they took on a complete form. In that exact moment it occurred to me that The Academy’s focus on teaching abstract principles applied to purely hypothetical situations, while certainly illustrative and illuminating, could go to hell. It was better to be alive.
It was better to be sitting in a teahouse with no money. Even though I had been held captive for three days, and it was nearly time for lunch, and I hadn’t eaten all day. Even though Hanzhou was a pit of corruption and noise. Even though it was too hot out and a shift in the wind brought us some unpleasant animal stink from I don’t know where.
It was at least a little better than being dead.
I let out a sigh and felt the anger leave my body with it.
“Well,” I said at last. “I’m glad I’m alive.”
“And I’m glad you’ve run out of ink.”
A thought occurred to me like a flash of lightning and I practically jumped out of my shoes with excitement. Jingwei was immediately suspicious.
“This city is packed to the brim with merchants!” I said. “There must be someone selling ink!”
“Must there? Really?”
“Surely not,” she said.
“And spare brushes! You can never have enough extras. You learn that the hard way, let me tell you.”
Jingwei rubbed at her temple. It had hardly been more than an hour since her last bout, and yet enough internal energy had already accumulated to pain her. I thought a change of topic might lessen her suffering if through no other method than distracting her from it.
“But for now we must settle this business about your name,” I said. “There must be something I can call you that won’t bring ruin upon us.”
While she considered this I looked around for anything like an office supply merchant. But Hanzhou is such a dense city one is lucky to see down the block. I’d have to conduct a thorough survey on foot.
At last she said, “Qi Xia.”
I nodded. “May I presume you did not choose this name at random?”
“You’re a scholar,” she said. “Your presumptions won’t stop until your pulse does.”
“It’s just that Legendary Gallant is a rather conspicuous name.”
“It’s aspirational,” she said.
“And a fine aspiration it is,” I said. “But since it is unusual, it will draw attention. If you are comfortable with drawing attention, then I may as well leave.”
“That’s a thought,” she said a little too happily I thought. It may have been the least dour thing I’d heard her say. It was clear my plan to lessen the pain of her internal energy build up was working!
“What about Qi Xiao as a compromise?” I said.
“Little Legend?” she said with so much enthusiasm you’d think I suggested she chew her own hands off.
“It too is aspirational.”
“Barely,” she said in a scornful tone that ought to be levied exclusively at one’s nemesis.
“Ah, but that makes it even better for your disguise! You are so very far from a little legend after all.”
You must remember that mine was a life spent in grueling study and rigorous debate. I select words not merely to make my point, not merely to make it eloquently, but to plant ideas in the minds of others so that my quite eloquent point seem less like an opinion and more like an inevitability.
Jingwei wore a stoic mask like everyone in the wulin. But they aren’t perfect masks. Anyone can decode the subtleties that betray what hides behind them. It only takes time and a perceptive eye. While I’d known Jingwei a short time, I’m very learned. And, as a result, very perceptive. She hid her inner thoughts from me as best she could, but I watched as the idea took root all the same.
“Fine. Qi Xiao. Who cares.”
Reader, I am a genius.
“What’s our cover story?” she said.
“We don’t look suspicious, and now I’ve got a shitty name, but that won’t help us for long if our stories don’t check out,” she said.
“Ah. Well,” I said. “Marriage played into my previous plan and that nearly worked.”
“No,” she said. And rather quickly, I felt. “Keep it simple,” she said. “You’re a scholar. You’re traveling to Gansu on official business.”
“That’s essentially true,” I said.
“Good, less for you to get wrong that way. We’ll just say I’m your bodyguard.”
“I need a bodyguard?”
“Hey. I get to have my sword that way!” she said. A hungry glint sparkled in her eyes as she yanked her bundled up sword from my pack.
“Just hold on! Why do I need a bodyguard?”
“You’re weak and sheltered and clueless,” she said. “You’ve got a head full of books, but it’s as good as a head full of rocks because you don’t know people, or real life, or anything useful. You’d end up dead in a ditch inside an hour without someone holding your hand.”
“But would anyone truly believe that of me?”
That stony mask fell over her face once more. Then the scantest smile crept out from the left corner of her mouth. She wrangled it into submission. It took several tries before she could stamp it out fully.
“I think you’ll manage,” she said. I was honored that she would place the crux of our plan in my hands!
We set out for lunch but I had to make a quick stop to refresh my supply of inks. I wasn’t to know we’d still be there an hour later. Ordinarily it would be luxury itself to pore over a curated selection of high quality inks for an hour, but I was already hungry and lunch should’ve been an hour ago!
Mr. Song was a calligraphist and he appeared old enough to have consulted on the invention of writing. He sat in a stall piled high with papers and scrolls and brushes and inksticks. The stall was situated between a silver exchange (Long Zhuang’s Silver) and a woodworker specializing in cart repair (The Whole Cart and Kaboodle). It was not a space for a store. It was barely a space at all. More of a gap that a much younger Mr. Song considered to be worth occupying for the rest of his life.
Mr. Song sat behind a portable desk in a forest of scrolls covered in immaculate calligraphy. Mostly it was poetry. The largest and most beautiful calligraphy on display had the most straightforward message of all. It read, simply, Mr. Song’s Calligraphy While You Wait.
I wondered if he had ever had a customer.
We acquired blank books earlier in the day but the best that could be said about the selection of ink in Hanzhou thus far was that it probably never killed anyone. A calligraphist, however, would have a perfectly acceptable array of inks to choose from.
But it was past midday at this point, and we hadn’t eaten since an early dinner the previous night, and it had been a busy morning, so my appetite was fast becoming the greater priority. Especially once a change in the wind made me aware of a nearby noodle cart.
Mr. Song unfurled a small blank scroll across the desk and set a paperweight on it. These were simple movements but they radiated a master’s precision. In one hand he held a fine brush dabbed with ink that, somehow, never dripped.
“You can tell everything about a person from their calligraphy,” Mr. Song said, not for the first time. You must keep in mind that my record spares you the most maddening and repetitious sections of our conversation.
“Yes, you mentioned that,” I said. Also not for the first time. That was probably rude but remember that I was making a frankly heroic effort to keep civil while under the relentless assault of delectable smells from whatever was being prepared at the noodle cart.
“Even their future,” he said. That part was new, and possibly interesting, but any addition to his conversational meandering was only delaying my lunch and could not be tolerated.
“Undoubtedly,” I said. “But in the meantime I’d like to buy some ink from you, sir.” This was probably the fourth time I’d tried to get the conversation back on its course. I supposed that so long as the sign said While You Wait Mr. Song was determined not to make a liar out of it.
“Yes, yes. Of course you’ll need some ink,” he said. “There’s more than enough. Come, come.” He gestured for me to take the brush.
I looked to Jingwei. A simple shrug made it clear she would not engage with anything but food, wine, and attempts on our lives. She must have been hungry too but she made no outward sign of discomfort about it. Of course she was accustomed to hardships. I was accustomed to cafeterias.
Resisting Mr. Song’s digressions hadn’t gotten me any closer to eating so I reached out and Mr. Song placed his brush in my hand.
“Poetry,” he said. “That always does the trick.”
We studied some poetry at The Academy in the same sense that doctors study some anatomy. Court documents and official histories have been written in poetry for a thousand years. We could hardly be expected to understand them without first building a foundation of poetry through the ages! Even today’s legal texts, though plain-speaking by the ancient standards, possess a poetic flair. How could they not? If a law is not beautiful then how can it be just? If it is not just, how can it be the will of Heaven?
Two lines from my favorite of the ancient poets came to mind and I copied them from memory in a flurry of simple strokes. The less fuel I gave him, the shorter his fire would burn, and the sooner we could move on to lunch!
Man’s life is but the morning dew,
past days many, future ones few.
Mr. Song’s eyebrows stood up and took a bow. But then they were so bushy it was easy to imagine they possessed lives of their own. “From The Short Song by the villain Cao Cao,” he said.
I bowed my head and returned the brush. “Yes. One of my favorite pieces by one of my favorite poets.”
Mr. Song picked up the calligraphy I’d written and examined it from a variety of angles and distances. He looked to Jingwei. He looked to me. He looked to the mule. He turned back to the calligraphy.
“An interesting choice.”
“Though Cao was a villain,” I said, “he was also a profoundly talented poet. And, though he was a traitor who usurped the throne, the historical record demonstrates that he was also a wise and fair administrator. Thus the poet Cao and the villain Cao reminds us that everything is a union of opposites.”
“It is, as well, a reminder that nothing is what it seems to be,” Mr. Song said.
Jingwei cleared her throat.
“In this way we can investigate truth by examining falseness,” Mr. Song said. “Lies hide the truth by design, but they must lead back to it all the same. It is a path fraught with wrong turns and dead ends, but it is a path that would lead to the truth if only navigated correctly.”
Mr. Song appeared to be something of a philosopher. This came as no surprise. In my experience at Hanlin, frail old men who care a great deal about things like calligraphy are never more than two breaths away from launching quite a lot of philosophy at anyone foolish enough to be within earshot. It was my theory they thought death would not dare to take them away in the middle of a sentence.
“Most profound, Mr. Song,” I said.
Jingwei coughed pointedly. “Mr. Gao,” she said. “Isn’t it time for your lunch?”
Mr. Song bowed his head toward her. “Ah, your companion has just provided us with a prime example this principle!”
Jingwei shot one thousand daggers into my body with nothing but her eyes.
“The lie is the lunch,” he said. “It may be time for your lunch but that is one of the false turns I spoke of earlier. But if we properly navigate the topic of this lunch it will lead us back to the hidden truth. What would that be? Her mounting discomfort at this discussion of falsehoods betraying the very truths they are constructed to hide. Therefore she is hiding something. Perhaps you are as well, Mr. Gao?”
I should have been angry. Or at the very least worried about our cover story falling apart upon the slightest scrutiny. But Mr. Song spoke in exactly the tones and cadence of my elderly professors when elucidating a point they found fascinating whether or not their students did. Mr. Song spoke with the scholar’s joy of deploying order to banish chaos and I was instead overcome with a deep nostalgia for my days at Hanlin and an immediate affection for old Mr. Song.
Jingwei was not.
Mr. Song noticed it too. “There is nothing to worry about, young lady,” he said, laughing. “I’m just an old man who likes the sound of his own voice. But it is time for your lunch and I’ve taken so long to say a great deal about nothing at all. It was ink that brought you here, yes?”
He produced a little wooden box from a stack under a tarp. He set it on the desk, opened it and pushed it toward me. Inside there were five immaculate inksticks.
“Beautiful,” I said. “How much?”
Mr. Song returned to the calligraphy I produced. “We will trade.”
“I’m taking advantage of you,” I said.
“I’m the expert here, yes?” he said. “I should know what a bit of calligraphy is worth. Anyway, the only ink I sell is the calligraphy I write and that will do you no good. Therefore, a trade is the only transaction that will do.”
I tried to protest, but Mr. Song shut the box and pushed it into my hands. I could only refuse by dropping it which I dared not do but nearly did anyway as Jingwei dragged me away from the stall.
I got my legs under me and bowed and thanked Mr. Song profusely as we marched away. I carefully tucked the box of inksticks into my pack to keep it safe.
“How about that lunch?” I said.
Jingwei grabbed my arm and yanked me in close so she could speak without being overheard. “It’ll be a lot easier to keep our cover if you don’t go around telling everyone about it,” she said. It came out in a hiss.
“What, you’re worried about Mr. Song?” I tried to extricate my arm but her grip only tightened. There would be bruises.
“We’re already on the run because you can’t keep a secret,” she said. Still hissing.
“I don’t think bodyguards are supposed to manhandle their clients.”
“They do if the client’s about to walk into a tiger trap,” she said.
“Mr. Song is a harmless old man.”
“You just keep quiet and let me worry about who’s harmless and who isn’t,” she said. She let go of my arm like it was a piece of garbage she was throwing at her worst enemy. And the garbage was on fire.