Part 1 – The Cold Mountain
Part 2- Tea with Jade and Tiger
The silhouette of San Chou gleams between the three green hills of the southern part of the Yellow River. Like a hungry locust reaches a rice paddy, I reach San Chou, five days after Jade, Tiger and I part at my father’s house. My father is Zhang Dee Yang, the most honored governor of Li Jiang. His high hopes are resting on my shoulders. Jade and Tiger, his friends come along to help me complete my mission.
Dressed like a wandering astronomer, nobody takes noticed of me. I merge with the river of craftsmen and farmers going to the Moon Market in the heart of San Chou. I have no troubles at all. The whole village is busy preparing for the Moon Festival anyway, so no one pays attention to the flood of strangers mixing with the villagers on the streets. Children laugh, dogs bark, horses leave their droppings everywhere. Life pulsates in this seemingly happy village. Nobody knows, that it’s rotting from the inside, with the poison of the infamous Black Viper, a gang of thieves and murderers.
In the first hostel at the outskirts of the village, I ask for martial arts schools. San Chou has three, the owner tells me. He smiles a polite but expectant smile, so I buy a pork bun and a hot cup of tea.
That’s a start! The whole way to the village I muse how to infiltrate the Band of The Black Viper. I will find some shady characters and tell them good fortune, let slip, that danger is around the corner. A big black snake ready to bite them. I will observe very carefully. I know where to look for shady characters… “If you look for trouble, search for the troublemakers.” That is what my master in the Monastery says. Martial arts scholars have a clear stroke of trouble on them, no doubt about it.
I’m one of those trouble makers indeed. Before my father sent me to Mount Shongshan, I was a no-good, lazy boy, bound to destroy myself and my foster family. I knew nothing.
The memories of my training well up in my heart. I sip the tea and smile at the years on Mount Shongshan. The wise monks were firm, never allowing anger, fear or joy in their scholars. I cannot imagine that my dear teachers were ever able to giggle, to burst into a fit of laughter or shout at someone. The tea tastes mild and refreshing, I bite the soft bun. The taste of it’s dough fills my mouth. The spicy pork meat swipes away the gentle sweetness around it. What an excellent bun! I think of the constant hunger and the countless hours of hard work and pain in the Monastery, to school my mind. “Character is the silver you get, when you refine the rocks from the mine.” My foster father says, before he sends me away. The last thing he says to an angry little boy, who just stole the horse of a drunken soldier. The horse, he had to kill and replace, because I made it fall and it broke one of it’s legs… I did not know, what he meant with his farewell words. Years later, my master completed what I could not understand with my angry blazing heart. “But first, you have to crush them, then heat them, so they lose their stubborn efforts to cling to their habit of being rocks…”
Master is right, I decide. Troubled souls have an affinity to martial arts. They are attracted to what they think of as an act of violence, like moths to the fire.
The owner of the hostel comes to refill my cup. I ask him for a room, for the duration of the Festival. He seems happy, and he shows me into a tiny room under the roof. “Three days in advance.” He smiles bowing deeply, and I pay making a sour face. He will get greedy, if I do not show, that the two wen he wants hurt my moneybag. Downstairs, I take two more pork buns. I have to take a look around the village.
A little boy, not more than three summers, squats at the entrance of the hostel and looks quizzically at me. Snot runs down his dirty round face, and he sweeps it away with the back of his puffy hand. I give him a bun. His little moonface brightens up, he bites a mouthful, barely able to close his lips, or chew. “Is this what father saw in me? A hungry little runt? Was it pity?” He shoots up to his feet, suddenly with a troubled look. Fear crawls over his smooth forehead, fear that I might change my mind and take back his tasty treasure. With a shriek around the mouthful of bun he runs. My gaze follows the boy running as fast as his tiny feet carry him. He disappears in the shadows between two huts on the other side of the street. At least he isn’t hungry anymore, and nobody else needs to pity him for today.
“You have a good heart, I can tell.” Behind me a boy tugs at my sleeve. “But you are a stranger here, I can tell that too.” I turn around and look at him, eight summers, maybe nine. He is thin, hungry too, not fitting his clothes. He is, what I need.
I will pay the boy three wen to show me around. One coin for each school. I will give him another, for food. San, my guide, walks with me towards the heart of the village. He does not question anything I say to him. He seems to know everybody around… He must be a beggar of some sort. Tiger and Jade are nowhere to be seen, so I start my observations and take notes. San is explaining everything to me. Each school has one active teacher, and one older master. The number of scholars are variable. Southern Fist has eleven boys, Wing Chun has fifteen and Northern Legs has seven.
I try to remember every scholar entering and leaving the school. It is most likely, that the criminals have some sort of training. I will have to ask the masters for drop-outs without attracting too much attention… Or maybe I will ask San, he seems to know a lot about the people living here.
After that, I check the administration. From the outside it looks fine. I send San away with four wens, and make him promise not to steal for today and to hide his coins from the elder boys. “You may come back to the hostel tomorrow.” I tell him, seeing his sparkling eyes. “I might have work for you.” I lie.
Then. I catch a glimpse of Tiger. San sees me. He sees Tiger. I shoo him away. Tiger leans at the garden wall of a house nearby, in a beam of sunlight and throws me a disgusted look.
Where is Jade? That smile… My stomach falls. Is she in trouble, and Tiger plots something to get her out? Inside me things add up in a bad way. I have to check for myself.
I have a brilliant idea! I go to the entrance of the administration and knock at the door. Truth is a tool, as much as lies and betrayal are.
A soldier lets me in, and I demand to see the high official. The courtyard of the administration is tidy. Busy officials rush from the entrance to the house. The soldiers guarding the house look sharp. They notice every tiny movement. So far so good, I tell myself.
The soldier leads me to a wooden door at the northern side of the building. I’m shown into a small dark room, with one chair and one table. After a minute, a thin old man comes in. His feet shuffle him forward, a cane supporting his unsteady steps. His clothes are richly embroiled. His hat marks him as a high ranking official.
As he sits down, he nods and flashes his complete set of teeth. Only as he indicates with his hand, I start speaking: “My Lord. I am a wandering scholar, an astronomer. I’m here to warn you. A man I noticed on the other side of the street is spying out the administration.” The man shows no reaction. Odd. Maybe, if I speak louder. “I know him from my hostel, where I made a horoscope for him. A truly dangerous and brutal man.” I try and bow slightly in front of him. He indicates me to stop, stands up and shuffles out of the room. Surely, to check my claims. Or…
Four soldiers barge in. Swords drawn. All pointing at me. The man comes back in, with a most satisfied smile. “So we caught you, Monkey!” He barks a little laugh, and turn towards someone outside. “Call Miss Jade.” This is not how I planned it. “You’ll see that our prisons are as comfortable, as the ones in Li Jiang.” He points his bony index at me and grins.