“Yellow River Red Star”, Ch. 3

Six Months Ago.

Gan nursed a green tea in the little noodle shop, resting his voice between shows.  The juggling wasn’t what got him:after so many years on the road, he could do his act in his sleep.  It was all the yelling – the closer he got to thirty, the longer it took for his vocal cords to recover.  The glib cook plopped a bowl of piping-hot dumplings in front of him, and Gan’s stomach yelped in delight.  Gan had brought in so much business with his act, the cook bubbled, that this bowl was on the house.

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Before Gan could savor his reward, in walked a shabby-dressed man with the build of a hard laborer.  He didn’t have the grease of local mechanics nor the heavy lurch of the dock-workers.  Whatever his occupation, Gan concluded, it gave the stranger a stately bearing.

The man drew closer, smiling.  Did he want a handout? If so, he was asking the wrong guy.  A fan, perhaps: here to buy an advance ticket, exchange a few pleasantries, and leave him in peace. Instead, the man sat down across from him, back straight, hands in his lap, smiling earnestly.

 

Gan finished a long sip of tea and said, “You’ll have to lose that wig.  You might fool some of these rubes from far away, but from this close, you look like an idiot.”

 

The man smiled wider and removed the shabby black wig, revealing a bald head with a couple daysof stubble.  “That’s better.  I work in the opera, after all – I know my make-up and wigs.  So cut to the chase.  What do you want from me?”

 

The stranger spoke in a steady baritone. “My name is Hao.  I seek passage aboard your ship.”

 

Gan guffawed. “Aboard the Songbird? You come with me, there’s barely enough room for me and the essentials I’ve bought.”

 

“I think I can persuade you.  After all, I have something you want.”

 

Gan tapped an impatient finger against the rim of his teacup.  “Is that so? Tell me, then.  What do I want?”

 

Hao paused and shifted almost imperceptibly in his seat.  Gan felt the table pushing up towards his teacup.  He grabbed the cup and leaned away so he could make sense of what was happening.  The small synth-wood table was ever so slowly and steadily lifting off the ground.  He looked underneath: the stranger was lifting the table with just one finger, that dumb little grin still on his face.  As he watched, the stranger spun the table with a swing of the thumb.  The table turned a half rotation, so that when the smiling stranger put the table down, Gan’s dumplings were in front of him.  Hao picked up and studied the morsels, smiling.  “Pity I don’t have chopsticks. I suppose I can use my hands…”

Gan scowled and reached for bowl.  “Give me that, you-”

Hao deftly turned his wrist, deflecting the grab.  Gan lunged with the other hand: blocked again.  He tried two quick grabs and was blocked down, this time Hao shifting back in his seat with the noodles held close to his shoulder.  Gan, persistent, gathered into his chair, then exploded across the table at the monk.  Hao hopped up into his chair and thrust his palm out firmly into Gan’s face, holding the dumpling bowl steady behind him on the ball of his right foot.  Gan dove to his knees to avoid Hao’s palm, drawing close. He tried for a low punch to the monk’s midsection, but the monk was airborne, having launched off the chair with his planted foot.  Hao spun with his chest facing up toward the roof, snatching the bowl from the air.  His momentum carried him through and he sunk to the ground in a low, wavering mantis stance.  “Had enough? Or should we continue?”

Gan shifted his weight and launched a sweeping kick toward Hao’s head.  This wasn’t about the dumplings anymore – if the bald man wanted them, he could clearly have them.  Like so many training sequences on the Hermit, once begun, they could only carry it to completion.  The monk bobbed in his stance, the attack passing him by. Gan landed with his feet in a line, then spring forward into a flip that ended in a heel drop, right foot extended out with the toes pointed up.  A killing blow, if it landed.

Instead, his target was gone, and Gan sunk safely to the ground on his hands.  The left side of his face lit up with heat and pain as the monk boxed his ear, a strike so quick he didn’t feel the blow, only the ringing after-effects. Gan advanced on the monk, each strike pushing him further from his goal. Hao ended it with a knife-hand strike that ended exactly where Gan’s nose began.  Gan experienced no pain, but instead a firm dry presence on his nose.

A long moment passed, punctuated at last by uproarious applause.  The scant patrons of the noodle joint had swelled as passers-by flooded into the store to watch the fight.  This wasn’t the rough cheer of a gutter-brawl crowd, but the joyous applause of masterful performance.

“And that, patrons, was the Tale of the Ravenous Monk!” Gan soaked up the applause and prostrated himself to the crowd.  The monk bowed, solemnly, once.  He then turned to Gan and handed him the bowl of still-warm dumplings.  “These are yours, of course.  Have you considered my request?”

The promoter set the bowl on the table, and handed the monk his wig.  “Pass this around to our loving patrons, and we have a deal.”  Gan left him alone with a good portion of the crowd, fetching a purse from his side, reaching out with a grin to accept donations.

Hao had never solicited money from anyone before. Now they swarmed him, congratulatory smiles and outstretched hands. He weakly held out the wig and felt it sink as a credit stick tumbled in…and another, and then a wave of them. The smiles were infectious and grateful – but what had he given them? He had displayed his might to the juggler to earn passage on his ship, but the adulation of the crowd took him by surprise.

The red-faced noodle cook appeared and tapped him on the shoulder. He beamed down at Hao, holding aloft two cavernous bowls of hot noodles. His stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since he had left the monastery two days ago.

“For you and the juggler. You guys are great for business!”

Hao looked across the bar at a large line of new patrons who, just moments before, had handed him their hard-earned money and were now lining up for food that, two minutes ago, they were perfectly content doing without. Led by their desires…

“O-of course. Thank you, sir.” Hao bowed gratefully.

“Ha! A monk to the end!” The big man chuckled, then leaned in conspiratorially. “But, uh, no more kung fu tonight, alright? At least not while you’re here.”

Hao smiled. “You have my word, sir.”

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