Chapter 4: A Sissy to Fight
They truly did attend a feast, although it was not a feast of delicious and rich fare. An enterprising establishment near the docks offered neverending food for a cheap price. Called the Heavenly Meat Palace, it was not very well cleaned, and filled with sweaty sailors and drunken soldiers.
The food was simply prepared, but plentiful. There were skewers of suspicious-looking meat served by the handful, boiled yellow beans, spicy prawns from the nearby river, and loads of flatbread. Most of the food was unseasoned, but Sun Mai was aware of that ahead of time and purchased a pack of peppers and spices from a nearby vendor.
The restaurant also provided endless pots of cheap yellow wine, which Sun Mai began to down with a vengeance. When Sunan reminded him about what he had said just earlier that night about drinking, Sun Mai claimed to have forgotten.
At one point, Sunan suddenly thought of something and asked, “How are we paying for this?”
Sun Mai stared at him for a moment. “Seriously? Did you forget? We’re rich! You won! Did you hear me, you WON!?” He reached into his robe and then threw a purse down onto the table. It landed a clunk. “That’s an entire string of cash!”
Sunan nearly choked on a mouthful of grilled meat. “A string of cash!? You mean 1,000 spades?!”
Sun Mai grinned and drank another mouthful of yellow wine. “Like I said, we’re rich!”
“But I thought you said we would earn 250 spades?”
Sun Mai chuckled. “That was if you lost.”
“You expected me to lose?!”
Sun Mai stuck his chin up. “Of course not. I was just prepared for the worst.” His eyes suddenly flickered, and he looked around. “Now tell me, how did you do it? Was it…magic? Black magic? Most men of learning don’t believe in such things, but I’m no ordinary man. So… was it?”
Sunan guffawed. “Magic? Magic’s not even real! No, it was… I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Don’t know how to explain it?! What does that mean? You knocked that buffoon a full 10 meters through the air! The physician said his arm was broken, plus three or four ribs, although that could have been from the fall. If it wasn’t magic, then what was it?”
Sunan frowned and picked up a pot of yellow wine. After taking a long swig, he said, “Something happened to me out in the mountains….”
Sun Mai chuckled. “I guessed as much from your clothing, if you could even go so far as to call it clothing. More like rags, really. Dirty rags, or even–”
“Anyway,” interrupted Sunan, “when I was out in the mountains alone, I… I felt something. Something that’s part of nature, I think, but then… it became a part of me. It felt like an energy, or a wind of some sort, like air. It began to flow through my body, and then, it started to grow. Somehow I pushed that wind air energy into my hand, and… well you saw what happened.”
“Wind energy, huh?” Sun Mai cracked open a spicy prawn and devoured it. A distracted look suddenly appeared in his eyes. “Wind. Energy. Wind and energy. Windy energy. Energetic wind? Energetic windiness? Windy engergeticness? No, that’s not right. Hmmm. Qi. Classical Fei. Qi. Yes, that’s right.” His gaze suddenly turned sharp. “You know, not many people can read Classical Fei nowadays, let alone speak it. Were you aware that in ancient times, people believed that the whole world was made of only five elements?
“Sounds funny, of course, because later that was proven wrong. However, in Classical Fei, the character for ‘air’ was the same one they claimed was one of the five elements, a type of energy that kept the world in motion. In Classical Fei, the pronunciation of that character is ‘qi.’ Wind air energy is a pretty cumbersome term, so why not just call it Qi?”
“Qi,” said Sun Mai, correcting his pronunciation slightly.
“Qi,” echoed Sunan. He nodded. “I like it.”
The conversation veered off into other directions after that, and the more yellow wine they consumed, the stranger the conversation got. Eventually, the night transformed into one long blur, much of which Sunan was later convinced was a hallucination.
The following morning, his pounding head was filled with images of himself and Sun Mai singing songs with a group of pretty girls with too much makeup, an argument with a beggar over a melon, and something about a tiger.
It took hours to recover. When his head was finally clear and his stomach settled, he had a more serious discussion with Sun Mai about what had happened, and what they would do going forward.
With the seemingly vast fortune they had won, they rented a small room in an inn near the docks, not too far from the Heavenly Meat Palace, which was surely destined to become one of their favorite destinations.
Sun Mai explained more to him about the underground platform duels. Everyone got paid, even the losers. However, the winners could earn exorbitant sums. According to Sun Mai, if he could win the next fight, they would get 1,500 spades, not just 1,000. And the numbers increased from there. Rumor had it that the top fighter, who went by the flashy nickname Golden Immortal, earned 50 strings of cash per fight, and never lost.
At Sun Mai’s urging, he began to spend most mornings meditating and practicing with his Qi. He also began to teach Sun Mai the meditation techniques from his village. Five days passed. On the morning of the sixth day, one day before the next underground platform tournament, Sun Mai finally made a breakthrough.
He let out a whoop of excitement and leaped to his feet.
“I did it! I felt it! The Qi! This is incredible! What do I do now?”
Sunan sat down cross-legged next to him and began to instruct him in the most basic ways of manipulating the Qi inside of the body.
That night, Sunan had a strange dream. He heard laughter, maniacal laughter. And then there was a black hurricane, whipping across the lands, flaying trees, sending men and soldiers flying about. He woke up in a cold sweat and couldn’t go back to sleep for nearly an hour.
The following day, after a morning spent meditating and circulating Qi, Sunan and Sun Mai went to the market to buy some new clothing. Sun Mai upgraded his scholar’s robes to silk, and Sunan purchased a tunic and trousers of sturdy hemp, something he felt more befitting to a rough-and-tumble duel.
Sun Mai tried to convince him to buy a jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back, but Sunan refused.
“But you’re Sunan the Dragon!” exclaimed Sun Mai.
Sunan merely snorted and continued on through the market.
Later, as they ate an afternoon meal, Sun Mai suddenly asked, “So, who was that girl?” He raised his eyebrow suggestively.
“Girl?” Sunan replied, confused.
“Come come, no need to be so shy. When I got up last night to talk to the moon, I saw a girl in your room last night. Gray robe? Pretty? Had a jian sword strapped to her back?”
Sunan stared for a moment. “Hold on, what did you just say? Talk to the moon?”
“Yeah, don’t you talk to the moon?”
Sunan shook his head. “Uh, no. Were you drinking again? There was no girl.”
Sun Mai gave a cold snort. “If you don’t want to admit it fine. She was pretty, though. You have my approval.”
Sunan shook his head and continued eating.
Later that night, they found themselves once again in the underground warehouse. Last time they had come, people had paid no more attention to them than they would a pair of flies. This time, eyes turned in their direction, and the buzz of conversation rose up in the room.
Rat-hearted Li appeared at their side. “Greetings, Young Masters. Young Dragon, are you ready for your fight?”
“Just Sunan. There’s no need for the ‘dragon’ part.”
“Er, very well, Young Master Sunan, please come with me to the fighter’s corner. Young Master Sun, a table is waiting for you in the managers’ corner.”
There were other fighters sitting on the benches, who eyed Sunan coldly as he approached.
“Your performance last week was spectacular,” Rat-hearted Li said, the words pouring out of his mouth. “Chen Zhisheng is still bed-ridden! And from a single blow at that. Because of the stunning fashion with which you achieved victory, you moved much higher in the rankings. You will fight fourth, against Wang Li, the Killer of Daolu.”
“Killer?” said Sunan. “I thought it was forbidden to kill your opponent?”
“Of course it is, but you know… accidents can happen.” After leading Sunan to the benches, Rat-hearted Li limped off into the crowd. Sunan looked over at the champions’ corner, and saw a man wearing a golden robe. Presumably, he was the famed Golden Immortal, the reigning champion.
Before long the fights proceeded. This was Sunan’s first time to truly watch people in organized combat. The first match was between a burly man who looked like a sailor, and a shorter but even stockier man who was obviously a soldier. Seeing them exchange blows, Sunan felt lucky that his opponent last time had been Chen Zhisheng. The sailor and the soldier were clearly no strangers to a fight.
They’re definitely good, probably not good enough to be considered experts though, he thought.
As Sunan watched, he picked up on some of the things that the men were doing, such as where they placed their feet, how they delivered their blows. In many of the situations, he instantly saw how a failed blow could have connected, or how twisting in a slightly different way could have resulted in avoiding a strike.
The two men battered each other back and forth for three rounds before the sailor was finally knocked unconscious by a fist to the side of his jaw.
As the man slammed face first onto the fighting platform, a glob of blood flew out of his mouth and narrowly missed Sunan.
Sunan swallowed hard.
The following fight was less dramatic, but longer. The two fighters were clearly experienced, and spent a lot of time dancing around each other. Neither of them even landed a blow during the entire first round. About half way through the second round, someone suddenly sat down right next to Sunan.
Sunan looked over to see a skinny fellow with a long scar down the side of his cheek, and long, curled mustaches.
“Hey kid, you’re the one they call the Dragon, right?” he asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the fight.
Sunan nodded. “Yeah, that’s me, but you can just call me Sunan.”
“My boss is Iron Awl Hu, have you heard of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“He’s an important man in Daolu. We’re aware that you’re new in town, so you probably don’t know the lay of the land here. Let me just spell it out for you. Iron Awl Hu runs things here. The constables, the soldiers, everyone answers to him. Got it?”
“Good, you seem like a smart kid. Listen, the man you’re fighting tonight, Wang Li, he’s a friend of Iron Awl Hu’s nephew. I think it would in your best interests to just let him win the fight. Don’t make it seem obvious. Throw in a few good punches and kicks. But in the end, you go down and you stay down, understood?
“Since you’re in the fourth match, you would normally make 625 spades for losing. We’ll kick it up to 1,000. Not a bad deal right?” He finally turned to look at Sunan. “You hear me, kid?”
Sunan clenched his jaw. “I hear you.”
“Good. Don’t let it go past two rounds.”
With that, the man stood up and wandered off into the crowd.
The current fight ended about then, and the third match started. However, Sunan couldn’t concentrate on what was happening on the platform. His mind was working furiously regarding the words spoken to him by the mustachioed man.
Finally, the moment arrived in which his name was called, but he still hadn’t formulated a plan. For some reason, he wished he could consult Sun Mai about. Although Sun Mai tended to ramble, and sometimes incoherently at that, he often ended up making interesting points and profound statements.
As he hopped up onto the platform, he heard a few people cheering for himself, the Dragon, but most were obviously rooting for Wang Li, the so-called Killer of Dao Lu.
As Rat-hearted Li made the introductions, Sunan looked over his opponent. He was young and well-built, with cold eyes and a mouth twisted into a perpetual scowl. He actually did look like the type of person you would expect to be a killer.
The round began, and Wang Li instantly went on the offensive, albeit cautiously. Before he could get close, Sunan began to circulate his Qi, raising his hands defensively at the same time. He instantly could tell how vastly different this match was going to be compared to his first fight.
Wang Li was obviously a trained fighter, with experience to boot. However, with Qi flowing through him, Sunan didn’t find it very difficult to avoid the man’s blows. The few that connected didn’t cause him very much pain.
But then one particular jab caught him across the chin, sending him staggered to the left, stars dancing in his eyes.
How did I let that through? he thought. I won’t let that happen again!
He shook his head to clear it, then sidestepped to avoid a followup blow.
After some more back and forth, the round ended. The entire time, Sunan didn’t strike out a single time.
When the second round started, Sunan still wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t like the idea of throwing the fight, but in the end, he would still make a lot of money. Sun Mai probably wouldn’t object. And it wouldn’t be a good idea to offend a powerful crime lord, which was what Iron Awl Hu seemed to be.
Wang Li edged forward and began to look for an opening.
Fine, I’ll just throw the match. It doesn’t matter.
However, it was in the exact moment that Sunan was about to throw the fight that Wang Li spoke for the first time.
“Hey little bitch, where did you learn to fight, some village somewhere? Who taught you, your mother? Or was it your sister? Tell me where you come from so that I can go thank them for giving me such a sissy to fight. Afterward, I’ll make sure to give them a real good time!”