They met again the following week on the airship. Lee had boarded in the evening at nine, found his cabin, and passed the night in silence and solitude. Cheung said he would assemble the crew in the dining compartment to discuss the trip over breakfast.
Lee showed up in his trail clothing. White cotton tunic and brown oxhide shoes and grey trousers. None of it was Western. Out of deference to the airship crew, his weapons were stored in the luggage compartment. He felt naked without a weapon, but a wuchishu exponent was never defenceless.
The dining room was crowded. Most of the passengers were having breakfast or tea. Most of them were Easterners. There were no International Cities in the northeast, so Westerners had little business there. None of them paid attention to Lee as he wound his way around the tables, but he did notice more than a few Yemai businessmen in Western dress, clumped near the front of the car and ignored by almost everybody else.
Cheung was sitting at the far end of the dining car, dressed in turquoise silk robes, the official colour of the Imperial Court. Next to him was a young woman in a black ch’ip’ao, the distinctive costume of the Northeast—and in the colour of the previous dynasty. She was in her late twenties, and her chi was a powerful, intangible presence he felt even a foot away.
She must have felt his, too.
“Ethan Lee, this is Tung Yan,” Cheung said in Kuoyü.
“Hello Mr Lee,” she said, in the accent of a Northerner. Maybe even a Northeasterner, but Lee didn’t know for certain.
“Hello Ms Tung, Mr Cheung.” He took the only available chair, a little uncomfortable with his back to the door and the rest of the room.
“I wasn’t expecting a hunhsüeherh,” she said.
The term meant ‘muddled-blood man’, the closest thing the language had to a polite term for a man of his ancestry.
“I also wasn’t expecting a Northerner.”
Northerners had a very insular culture. Very few of them ventured as far south as Sum Kong.
She chuckled. “Oh? Not just a woman?”
“There aren’t many lady risk takers. I’ve never worked with one before.”
“This job looks like the start of many firsts.”
“So it seems.”
Cheung cleared his throat politely. “We’ll be picking up the fourth member of our party on the ground. He’s our local guide. For now, I was hoping we could get to know each other better over breakfast.”
A waitress butted in at this point, asking for their orders. They ordered tea, but no food. They wouldn’t until Lee had a chance to look over the menu.
“I think I’ve heard of you before,” Tung said.
Lee flipped the menu open. “Oh?”
“There are very few mixed-blood risk takers. One of them, I’ve heard, distinguished himself in the I Chuan Uprising.”
“During the Uprising, the Army armed every man of fighting age, and every woman who volunteered. There are more than a few mixed-blood people where I come from.”
After the Uprising, the Emperor had allowed his subjects to keep those arms, the better to keep the imperialists away. The Risk Takers’ Guild was born shortly after.
“Shenkang,” he said, using the Kuoyü term for Sum Kong. “And you?”
“Linghsi.” It was as north anyone could go before entering the Northeast Province proper.
“I see.” He flipped open the menu, keeping half his gaze on the breakfast selection and the other half on her face.
“Perhaps I should be more specific. That particular gentleman I mentioned was adept with gun, fist and wuchi,” she said.
“Sounds like an interesting guy. Definitely not me though.”
“You said Linghsi, yes?” Lee asked. “I recall the Emperor crushed the local warlord three years ago. He was a wuchi master named Tung…and he had a daughter who reputedly followed in his footsteps. And disappeared after the campaign.”
She giggled. “Interesting. I’ve heard the warlord was a traditionalist. Why would he pass down his tradition to a female heir?”
“Because, alas, he produced no males despite having many concubines. Mr Cheung, do you have any recommendations for breakfast?”
The merchant blinked, and said, “I heard the tienhsin here is very good.”
Lee knew the term as dimsum, small bite-sized morsels served in steamer baskets or on small plates. “Tienhsin it is then.”
Cheung called the waitress over and ordered breakfast. Lee caught Tung staring at him with an unfocused gaze. She was reading his body’s chi field, its intensity and purity.
“Some exercise before breakfast would be good for digestion,” she said.
“What do you propose?”
She smiled. “We are both wuchishu practitioners of some skill, and we might be fighting bandits together very soon. It would be good if we both knew the others’ abilities before the job begins.”
“The dining room is crowded.”
She gestured to her left. “There is ample room in the viewing gallery.”
Lee looked. A short flight of steps led down to the viewing gallery, intended for passengers to have an unobstructed view outside. It was currently empty; the sea below was too uninteresting to watch.
Cheung held up his hands in protest. “Are you seriously proposing to fight here?”
“The fist speaks some things more clearly than the tongue,” she said.
Cheung looked despairingly at Lee. Lee simply shrugged and said, “What she said.”
He sighed. “If you damage the airship, it’ll come out of your pay.”
That would be the least of everybody’s problems.
“No wuchi then,” he said.
At the heart of every wuchi art was body mechanics. Chi flowed best when the body was properly aligned, and jammed up if it wasn’t. In wuchishu, the point of partner sparring without wuchi was to assess the other’s body mechanics, and thereby their skill with chi under pressure.
Lee and Cheung descended the steps to the viewing galley, keeping a respectful distance from each other, while Cheung resigned himself to a nearby couch.
The fighters stood ten paces away from each other and saluted.
“Tung Yan,” she said, assuming her combat form. “Wu Hsing Chuan.”
She placed her left foot forward, extending her left hand. She kept her other hand near her stomach. Both palms faced him. Her form was compact, her elbows tucked close to her rib.
“Isang T’omasi Lee Yungji. Mo men p’ai.”
“No style?” she repeated. “Fascinating.”
His stance was almost pure boxing: hands held high to the face, rear heel slightly raised, presenting his left side to her.
“Ch’ing,” she said, the traditional polite invitation.
She charged straight in with short, rapid steps, changing up her forward side with every landing. She was fast, faster than he anticipated, and was right on him. He kicked out on instinct. She dodged and fired a left straight to the body. Twisting right, he covered up and shot his palm at her face. But she had already anticipated that, dropping down just so while sliding up her other arm to deflect his strike.
He sensed a void in her chi, a weakness in her defences, and kicked up into her groin. A soft smack resounded from the point of impact. But as his foot went down, she kicked too, targeting his grounded ankle. He lifted his knee to void the blow, then twisted around into a roundhouse kick to the head. She ducked under it, then reared up in an uppercut. He swayed back, dodging the blow. She crashed in, her forearms high. He raised his arms to block.
A leg swept against his ankle, and his balance was gone.
He flapped his arms, tried hopping back, but it didn’t work. His body sought a new balance, finding it by crashing on his butt.
“Your teacher never told you to reserve your strength, not your skill, when sparring?” she asked.
He picked himself up. The break came him a moment to think. Wu Hsing Chuan was built around the spear; its unarmed combat style was similar to spear techniques. It was very direct, dominating the target’s centre.
Lee was trained in the opposite philosophy. He took a deep breath, relaxing the tension building in his arms, his legs, his tant’ien.
She advanced again. But now, with a sense of her rhythm, he sensed the next attack coming. As her hips blurred, he diamond-stepped to the left and twisted right, bringing his right arm up and circling it. He felt her arm trapped against his, and continued turning, pulling her off-balance. At the same time, he accelerated his left elbow up, going for her head, touching only hair.
He reached across her throat and grabbed her shoulder. Sweeping out her leg, he ruined what was left of her balance, and spiralled her down to the ground. His right arm twisted, cranking up her arm and forcing his bodyweight down on her. He pinned her wrist in his armpit and seized her elbow with both hands, sinking in the arm bar.
“My father taught me that skill was superior to strength,” he said.
“Sounds like a wise man. I don’t seem to be able to escape.”
Not that she was trying to escape. Her breath was deep and husky. Her hair smelled sweet, almost intoxicating. He gulped, and—
“What are you doing?!”
—and released her.
The waitress beheld them, hands on hips, face caught in stern disbelief.
“Exercise,” Lee said.
Tung dusted herself down. “Exercise. Good for health.”
The waitress shook her head, sighing loudly. “I—”
“Breakfast is ready,” Cheung said calmly. “I would like to enjoy it before it gets cold.”
“Excellent,” Lee said. “Let’s go.”
And walked away before the waitress could react. She sighed again, shook her head and left.
“Impressive,” Tung said. “Your father must have taught you well. You sure there was no style?”
“He studied a few martial arts, then worked with a few other martial artists to create one. They didn’t call the style anything.”
Actually, they called it Combato. But only one organization ever used it, and he didn’t want her to know that his father was a founding member of the Sum Kong Metropolitan Police Riot Squad. Until he knew her better, some things were better left unsaid.
She smiled. “I would like to see more of that someday.”
Lee smiled back. “Someday. Same for you too.”
Want more free stories like this? Sign up for my newsletter here!