Chapter 2: Five Spades
Sunan was not used to cities, but considering his circumstances, he didn’t pay much attention to his surroundings. After the long trek down from the mountains, he felt famished.
After months of living off the land, as soon as the fragrant smell of sweet buns and fried food entered his nose, his stomach began to scream at him. He spied one dish that appeared to be made from long strips of very thin bread, all piled together, and it looked delicious. Unfortunately, he didn’t have even a single spade to his name, which meant that if he wanted to eat immediately, he would have to steal… or beg.
His eyes flickered as he took in the sights and sounds while strolling the busy streets. From his observations, he soon realized that the beggars in the city were organized. He learned that the hard way, of course. At one point, he decided to rest by squatting down on a street corner, only to be accosted by an angry beggar who told him to, “Get lost, this is my street corner!”
At first he was confused as to why he would be taken for a beggar, until he remembered that he’d worn the same set of clothes this entire time in the wilderness.
The longer Sunan walked to and fro, the more his stomach grumbled. He began to glance at the food stalls out of the corner of his eye, and even started to eye the bulging purses tied to the belts of passing merchants and aristocrats.
In the end, he was the type of person who couldn’t bear to lower himself to the criminal element.
He would rather be a dog than a thief.
And that was how he ended up squatting in an alley, picking through a heap of trash. He found some half-eaten buns, a bottle gourd with a bit of yellow wine sloshing around in the bottom, and a few other miscellaneous items.
After sating his hunger, he crossed his legs and meditated for a bit to calm himself. Then he left the alley and began to explore the city.
The city had a long history that Sunan remembered reading about once upon a time. In the ancient dialect of Classical Fei, the name of the city mean “Road of Blades,” and there were numerous legends and stories about why that was the case. Like most old cities, it was well organized and laid out, sturdy and built to withstand the ravages of war.
A powerful city like this, so far north, was too far out of the range of the Demon Emperor to be under his control. However, his soldiers, who Sunan learned were called the Lions of Peace, could still be seen occasionally in the streets.
Sunan found a few locations such as restaurants or inns which were hiring staff. However, after only two inquiries, he realized that such establishments required that all new staff members provide paperwork to establish legal residency in the city, stamped with an official seal.
His heart began to sink. Honest employment seemed impossible to acquire, leaving him with few choices. He could resort to crime, or he could try to join whatever guild or sect the beggars ran.
He had just decided to seek a way to join the beggars when, all of a sudden, he noticed that across the crowded square from where he stood was a small booth with a banner hanging next to it that read: “Scholar Sun Mai’s Sundry Services.”
Sitting behind a rough wooden table was a young man dressed like a scholar, frowning as he read a bamboo scroll. His robe was disheveled, his hair unkempt, and his face was smudged with ink. Spread out on the table in front of him were various scholar’s instruments, including sheets of paper, brushes, ink, and the like. Furthermore, leaned up against the table next to him was a Guqin, a type of seven-stringed zither that was the signature instrument of a true scholar.
After seeing the young man sitting there, an idea bloomed in Sunan’s mind. Eyes glinting shrewdly, he strode across the square until he stood directly in front of the table.
“Greetings, scholar,” he said, clasping hands respectfully.
“Mm-hmmm,” was the reply from the young scholar, who stared intently at the bamboo scroll for a moment before inserting his thumb into his mouth and beginning to chew it slowly.
Sunan cleared his throat. “I’m in need of certain services. Sundry services perhaps?”
“Sun Mai’s Sundry Services,” replied the young scholar.
Sunan frowned. “Are you Sun Mai?”
“I am Sun Mai. Sun Mai I am.” The young scholar suddenly looked up from the bamboo scroll. “Perfect.”
“Do you know what perfect means? Perfect.”
Sunan was a bit taken aback. “Umm… I believe so.”
“You believe so….”
Sunan began to back up slowly. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea after all. “Sorry, I mistook you for someone else,” he said. “I’ll be taking my leave and--”
Sun Mai slapped his hand down onto the table. “Perfect and imperfect. They’re just states of mind, opinions, impressions. Beliefs! You believe so, and therefore you know.” A profound gleam appeared in his eyes, and he suddenly looked Sunan square in the eyes. “You, sir, are potentially a genius. Did you know that? Genius! How could I have overlooked this!”
He suddenly pulled out a sheet of paper and a small brush and began to furiously write down a steady stream of characters, muttering incohesively as he did. “Perfect… imperfect… beliefs are just systems… the sky… moon and sun… Dehua… interesting, interesting, interesting… YES!” He leaped to his feet and held the paper aloft with a triumphant smile.
“This is it! The beginning of my classic scripture!” He looked back at Sunan. “Of course, it won’t be classic until much later, so it will start out as an ordinary scripture. But one day, my friend, one day… it will be a classic. A classic I tell you!” He suddenly blinked. “Who are you?”
Sunan stared in shock for a moment before regaining his senses. “Fan Sunan, but… just call me Sunan.”
“Sunan? I’m Sun Mai.” The young scholar clasped hands and bowed. “I’m in your debt for this bit of enlightenment, how can I repay you? Do you need a poem written for a lover? Music for a feast? A painting perhaps?”
Sunan felt a bit trapped. He wanted to simply turn on his heel and walk off into the crowd, but couldn’t quite bring himself to be so impolite.
“I need some writing done,” he said finally. “Something similar to… proof of residency in the city. Do you happen to have official sealing stamps on hand…?”
Sun Mai cocked his head to the side for a moment, after which he chuckled, and his left eyebrow lifted up. “Ahhhh. A recommendation letter. So, you need THAT type of writing. Heh heh. Of course I can accommodate.” He sat back down and then began to shuffle through his brushes. “You know, not too long ago under the Hen-Shi dynasty, I would never have done something like this. It is most… inappropriate. But times are tough, so in this case, I will bend my own moral guide to help a soul as equally destitute as myself. Oh, the cost will be a total of five spades.”
Sunan cleared his throat again and was just about to launch into a proposal, when all of a sudden, he realized that he was not alone at Sun Mai’s booth.
A tall, muscular man was now standing next to him on his left, and to the right, were two shorter men. Although Sunan had grown up in a village, it was obvious to him that these men were ruffians. From the way they held themselves, to the expressions on their faces, he instantly knew that these were people that he couldn’t afford to offend.
“Sun Mai, Sun Mai,” said the tall man, “please tell me you have good news for me.”
Sun Mai looked up, and when he saw the tall man standing next to Sunan, his face went a bit pale.
“G-g-green Tiger Zheng,” he stammered. “Long time no see! How can I help you?”
“Long time no see?” replied Green Tiger Zheng. “I was here yesterday afternoon! And my patience is running thin. Where is my money?”
“Money?” replied Sun Mai. “Er, money, oh… right… money! Money.” Suddenly, his face brightened. “Well as a matter of fact, I do have some money. What do you say to a 10 percent payment, right here and now!”
Green Tiger Zheng’s eyes narrowed. “10 percent? That’s only five spades!”
Sun Mai tilted his head up, and a solemn expression appeared on his face. “Sir, I assume that you are not very familiar with Dehua, but allow me to point out that Kong Zhi said, ‘Strive to be poor but joyful, wealthy but civilized.’”
Green Tiger Zheng stared at Sun Mai for a moment. “As far as I’m concerned you can take that brush and stick it up Kong Zhi’s--”
“Hey-HEY!” interrupted Sun Mai, throwing his hands up in air. “Please, sir, show at least SOME respect for the ancient sages. I have five spades to give you today, isn’t that better than nothing? And I promise that… I promise that I’ll provide the same amount every other day until the whole amount is paid off!”
“Why should I believe you? You haven’t paid a single spade back for the past two months!”
Sun Mai cleared his throat. “I have a wealthy new patron,” he explained. “I am very much looking forward to paying back your fifty spades.”
Green Tiger Zheng’s hand closed around the handle of the wooden cudgel he kept strapped to his belt. “Very well. Five spades now. Five more in two days, and the same until your debt is clean.” He held out his hand. “Now give me those spades.”
Sun Mai nodded solemnly and then pointed to Sunan. “He has them.”
Sunan’s eyes went wide. “Me?” he blurted.
“Of course,” said Sun Mai. “Didn’t you just hire me for my writing services?”
“I don’t have any money! I was just about to tell you when--” Before he could finish his sentence, Sunan saw a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye.
The tall, burly man was reaching out toward him, clearly intent on grabbing him by the shoulder. For some reason, Sunan found his hands, feet, and waist falling into that same move that his “Master” the soldier had taught him. He twisted to the side, leaning just the right way and then pushing.
Before he even knew what was happening, the tall burly man was flying through the air. He crashed into Sun Mai’s table, crushing the entire thing and sending paper, ink, brushes, and other scholarly tools flying up into the air.
“My table!” Sun Mai exclaimed with a choked cry.
The burly man groaned, and his two companions stared in shock for a moment. However, it didn’t take but a moment for the two of them to pull cudgels from their belts. No words were spoken, but it was clear what was happening.
Sun Mai’s eyes went wide, and Sunan stood there gaping. Despite Sunan’s intelligence, he was not a street-wise person. Sun Mai was.
“Run!” he cried, scooping up his zither, some scattered papers, and a few brushes, and then leaping over the groaning man buried in the rubble of the table.
Sunan was simply too stunned to react. Before he could start running, one of the other ruffians took a swing at him with a wooden cudgel. Acting on mere instinct, Sunan leaned his head back to avoid the blow, then managed to reach and and grab ahold of the man’s wrist. Then he leaned backward quickly, simultaneously kicking out toward the man’s knee, another move he remembered learning from the soldier.
The ruffian instantly collapsed face-first onto the dusty street.
By this point, Sunan had recovered his senses. Not waiting for the third man to make a move, he turned and began running as fast as he could in the other direction.
Off in the distance, Sun Mai was scrambling around a corner into an alley, juggling zither and writing utensils the entire time. Sunan followed, speeding into the same alley moments later, whereupon he just managed to catch sight of Sun Mai ducking into dark door.
For the subsequent quarter hour, Sunan followed Sun Mai as fled in and out of buildings, alleys, streets, squares, stables, a library, a cricket shop, and even a brothel, before finally coming to stop behind a temple dedicated to Supreme Judge Yu. There, he plopped down beneath a cypress tree, dumped his zither and other items onto the ground next to him, and then pulled a rag out of his sleeve, which he used to wipe the sweat from his face.
“That… was… a… close… one….” he said, breathing heavily the entire time.
Sunan rested his hands on his knees and gulping in huge mouthfuls of fresh air. All of a sudden, he realized that he was starving again. He was of half a mind to curse Sun Mai, but for some reason, he felt that it wouldn’t do any good. After catching his breath, he dropped down cross-legged and said, “This was not how I envisioned my first day in the city.”
Sun Mai sighed deeply. “My apologies, although, if I were you, I would attempt to prevent from swindling others in the future.”
Sunan’s eyes went wide. “What did you just say?”
Sun Mai stretched out his hands placatingly. “Sunan, listen to me. The past is the past. It can be changed no more than the pigeon can restore the egg from which it just hatched.” He stopped talking and cocked his head to the side. “Say, that makes a lot of sense! Maybe I should write that one down to include in my classic scripture.” He looked back at Sunan. “Anyway, the point is, we can’t change the past, right? So why worry about it? The most important thing is that… I figured out something very important. I know how to make some money, Sunan. Big money. You and I are going to be rich!”