“Classes” are a bit of a misnomer. Since there are only four of us, and we’re so deep into our studies, we have free rein to practice what we choose most of the time. Much of the time we practice our martial arts, as that’s what appeals to us most, each with our own different styles. Thom is a straightforward fighter, and even now he practices mostly the fundamentals rather than elaborate techniques and lets his superior physique and solid footing carry him through most conflicts. It was certainly an effective way to fight, but both Ran and I found it frankly boring. It’s more interesting to constantly tinker with new techniques and figure out what works from there.
Our Sifu had cautioned us that being jacks-of-all-trades was a recipe for disaster in real combat, but we’d assured them that the experimentation would take second place to a stronger focus on our fundamentals and mastery of certain styles. The forms of the Dragon and the Snake appealed to me most and complimented each other well; the flowing motions of the latter combined with pinpoint striking made the hard-hitting blows of Dragon style that much more devastating when smoothly transitioned to unexpectedly.
Ran, similarly, utilizes primarily the Crane and Tiger arts which complement each other in much the same way. It’s part of the reason she’s such a good match for me; her counters are well suited to fighting off my aggressive attacks, while my own movements confound many of hers. Many of our matches ended in stalemate before we started experimenting with techniques from other styles.
Chou, however, is different. Submission holds and throws are her specialty, if she even has one. She is a thoughtful fighter and spends as much time meditating as practicing her forms. Admittedly this is something we are all encouraged to do; internal strength is more of a virtue than external strength…but it was certainly less interesting to practice. Still, it was a good tool for calming a troubled mind, which it looked like Chou needed right now.
After her talk with Sifu An, she returned with a strange expression on her face. Our attempts to get her to speak of it was only met with a terse “Nothing is wrong. Let me concentrate.”, and she promptly sat down and began meditating. Close to the end of the hour it became clear this was not having the effect she’d hoped, as she opened her eyes and took a deep breath, suppressing a sigh. My eyes widen slightly in surprise at even that much of an outward show of frustration. We could be seen by the other students in the great training hall, and open displays of emotion could be reprimanded harshly by some of the Sifu. Particularly Sifu Ma, who was viewing the entire hall with an impassive expression. No one I’ve ever met can express such displeasure with such a…coldness. No heat, no passion, simply deceptive calm and an almost palpable sense of his disgust looming.
I stand over Chou and make sure I’m facing away from the other students, and especially Sifu Ma, as I allow a bit of concern to bleed into my expression. “I know you said nothing is wrong, but I’ve never seen you lose concentration like that. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
She goes to shake her head but hesitates and nods slightly instead. “Yes, we all should. But not now, or here. Meet at the usual place after rest time begins?”
I nod, troubled, as she gives up on her meditation and leaves. Most the class follows not long after. If it were just a reprimand for her “cheating” or something similar she wouldn’t be so worried. Chou is the calmest among us, the one who most took to the teachings on inner peace and outward calm of all of the students I’ve met. I almost don’t want to know, but…well, I can’t let a mystery like that just go unsolved. And I need to be there for my friend, of course.
The rest of the day passed in a haze as I barely paid attention in our few mandatory classes on world history, philosophy, mathematics and other tedious subjects. They were useful, sure -well, two of them were- but by this point I felt I’d gotten most of what could be squeezed from these subjects. Especially philosophy. Learning what people had done in the past and how it turned out? Interesting, especially with a good storyteller like Sifu Wei giving the lessons. Old dead men giving their thoughts on how they thought things should be? I could care less. The virtues make sense to me, but the others…they range from incomprehensible to completely disturbing views of the world. Why would someone wish to think life is meaningless, or that individual achievement should be punished, not recognized?
I always learn enough to prove I was listening, however half-heartedly, and move on. Today I spare even less attention than that, though have become very practiced at faking it. Ran found that very funny when I mentioned it, but I’m not sure why. She finds the classes just as boring as I do.
The end of the day’s classes doesn’t come soon enough. Most days the time doesn’t pass so slowly, but I usually don’t have anything to look forward to in the evenings.
Ran, Thom, and some of the other students in the years below us throw parties in some of the private areas of the temple, but I’ve never been very interested in them. There are many games to play, some quite novel from students from more exotic places, but the closeness while playing them makes me uncomfortable. The even more increased…closeness that comes when everyone gets bored of such pursuits, especially when one of the students has managed to liberate alcohol from the private stores of one of the Sifu, makes me more uncomfortable. Chastity is not one of the virtues, though some might be taken to include it under their umbrella. Any loophole will do for many students, however. Many but not all. I get the feeling Chou shares my dislike, as I’ve never seen her at one of those parties.
Still, when no party was being held, the private spaces students past have carved out -quite literally in some places- in the temple make for convenient spots for clandestine meetings where we could let our guards down a bit, drop our masks, and have open conversations without fear of being overheard.
It is to one of these places I stole away to tonight, a few hours after dark. Most were generally asleep at this point, and as long as I can avoid the Sifu who might still be up, there should be no trouble. The particular spot we were meeting is one of our favorites, as it’s so close to our rooms. A tree in one of the advanced training areas had a cunningly concealed tunnel dug just beneath its base that led into a small chamber, large enough to comfortably seat around five people. Its construction is simpler than some of the others -the floor being only hard packed earth and the walls more of the same- but the spot was perfect for the purposes of having a quiet conversation and a bit of a drink.
I glared at Ran, as she had beaten me to the alcove yet again. “Looks like you get my dessert tomorrow. Again.” I sighed. “How do you do it? I left as soon as it got dark this time.”
“Like I’d ever tell you! Figure it out yourself.” She shoots back.
I start to smile and retort, but Thom comes in, shortly followed by Chou.
Chou’s expression immediately kills the burgeoning lighthearted mood. Dropping all masks, she looks worried…and a bit angry. We each stumble over each other as we near-simultaneously blurt out “What’s wrong?” She gestures for us to calm down and takes a moment to collect herself.
“Sifu An says I’m ready to graduate.”
I furrow my brow and open my mouth to speak, but Thom beats me to the punch. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“No. Yes. It’s complicated.” Chou says. “Just give me a minute to explain.”
“We’re all ready to graduate. We have been for months, is what Sifu An told me. They’ve been deliberately holding us back from the final trials.”
“What? Why would they do something like that?” Ran shouts, as everyone else gestures for her to lower her voice. “I can’t believe the Sifu would betray our trust that way!” She continues, marginally quieter.
“Not without a good reason, anyway. Did Sifu An tell you why?” I ask Chou, who is nearly vibrating with impatience.
“Sort of. He just told me it’s ‘too dangerous’ for us to leave Gao Shansi right now. If we graduate, there are too many traditionalists who would send us out ‘regardless of the current state of the world’. Whatever that means.” Chou shakes her head slowly. “That’s all he would say. Apparently, all of the Sifu have conspired to keep this from us but he thought we deserved to know. Especially with my recent progress, he said.”
I frown and open my mouth to speak, but Thom cuts me off. Again. I glare at him, annoyed, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Your match in the trials earlier. That was something important, wasn’t it?” Ran asked. I’m surprised but looking back it makes sense. I’d almost forgotten why Chou initially went to speak to Sifu An today.
Chou nods her head. “Yes. He said I was right, Thom.” A teasing tone creeps into her voice for a moment, before she turns serious again. “It’s something we’re all supposed to learn in the last stage of training. There are some techniques that can only be taught through the image training. He wouldn’t tell me what they were, but he said learning them is the final step to become a graduate, rather than a student.” Her expression twists in a half-snarl of frustration before she smooths it again. “He wouldn’t tell me any more. The Sifu want to keep us in the dark as long as possible so they have an excuse to keep us here past time to leave. They were going to let us believe we’d been lax in our training or were slow learners just to keep us cooped up in Gao Shansi for another year or more.”
Ran and Thom look flabbergasted, before their expressions slowly darken in anger as well.
“All because of some danger outside the walls? The world has always been dangerous, that’s why most of us are here! It doesn’t make any sense.” Ran chimes in again, Thom nodding along in agreement. “Ran’s right, it doesn’t make any sense. They train us so hard so we have to fear no danger outside of Gao Shansi. Have the Sifu gone soft?”
I look at my fellow students, a bit disturbed they’d so quickly jumped to assuming malice on the part of the Sifu. Sure, some could be harsh, but- I shake my head. No time to get sidetracked.
“Think for a moment. They wouldn’t hide us away here for some normal threat.” I interject. “Look around at all the new students we’re getting. Wings of the temple that haven’t been used in centuries are being opened again just to have enough space to house and train them all. This is something unusual. It could be a plague or some horrible disaster we have no way to fight. Would you have them send us out just to die to something we have no defense against?”
Everyone else sighs.
“You’re probably right, but it’s still frustrating. They don’t trust us enough to explain themselves.” Ran says.
“Well, the first thing one of us did on being told a secret was to tell three other people about it.” Thom says, nudging Chou in the ribs. We all almost smile, but the good humor once again dies on the vine.
Thom is right, in a sense, and we all know it. I’d often got the feeling the Sifu knew about some or all of our nighttime escapades but took great care not to show it unless we were too careless in leaving our sleeping quarters. It might even be training of its own. Discretion was one of the lesser virtues as well, after all. They would know that word would get around about any juicy secrets in the temple, but there should be no trouble unless that same word got back to their ears directly.
Chou’s thoughts apparently ran along the same thread as mine. “That’s probably why Sifu An didn’t give me very many details. He knew I’d tell the rest of you as soon as I had a chance.”
Righteous anger and frustration quickly turn to dejection, and we all sit in silence for a while. Ran is the first to break it.
“Well, dwelling on it here isn’t going to help anything. We should head back before we’re missed.” Ran says, and leaves after only a moment’s pause. I give a brief thought to trying to tail her but think better of it. Whatever trick she uses to get here so fast is one she intends to keep, and I’m not in the mood for a chase almost certain to end in failure for the umpteenth time.
The next days passed uneventfully as we returned to our studies. We were all a bit dejected. Despite my words, I was also saddened by the Sifus’ lack of faith in us, and our training was lackluster to say the least. What was the point of doing our best if the effort wasn’t going to be recognized?
The Sifu, unsurprisingly, took notice. On the fourth day after our meeting, Sifu An approached us, took one look at our faces, and simply said “Come”.
So we came, and here we are. Where “here” is, exactly, is the bigger mystery. I wasn’t surprised at Sifu An’s ability to quickly read our emotions even through our masks; that much was par for the course for most Sifu who bothered to pay attention. But it was rare for a Sifu to pull aside a class, much less take them to an unused part of the temple.
At least, That’s what I assume it is. It looks like many of the other training halls, with high arched ceilings, hard packed earth in the center, and a number of trees and some scruffy grass scattered around to give the illusion of a forest clearing. What’s different is this place clearly hasn’t been used in a while. The trees and grass are both dead, and the air is heavy and stale, smelling faintly of rotting vegetation.
Sifu An stares blankly at all of us for a moment, then drops his own mask just a hair, letting us see his exasperation.
“I had expected Chou to inform all of you, but your reaction is disappointing. You bemoan our lack of faith in you but have none in us in return.” He forestalls the startled replies that form on all our lips with a half-glare that stops our protests in their tracks.
“Perhaps it is warranted. We are aloof to most students, and you remain woefully uninformed of what happens in the outside world and the complexities surrounding the decisions we make. We feel our hands are tied in a certain way, by tradition.”
He takes a look at our confused expressions. I wonder where he’s going with this?
“Where I’m ‘going with this’ is this: I’m offering you further training. Not just the kind of training you would receive as potential graduates, though we’ll start with that. I offer you a head start on the path to true mastery. The kind of tools you’ll need to survive outside of Gao Shansi.”
I frown. I thought they’d planned to hold us back indefinitely?
Sifu An’s eyes flash.
“Holding you back is only a stopgap measure. A compromise the traditionalists came to with the more pragmatic in our number. But we can’t do it forever. You’ll have to leave by the time the next class is ready to graduate. The traditionalists wouldn’t allow anything more. I don’t intend to see you languish here, half-trained, only to be thrown to the wolves with no preparation. When you leave I want you to have a chance. It’s all I can offer you, and all the others will allow.”
“Our time is limited. A year if you’re lucky, maybe half that. Consider your normal classes completed. We start in the morning, an hour before classes normally begin.”
That said, he strides out of the room, mask once again firmly affixed. We all look at each other, dazed and astounded. I imagine the same questions are running through everyone else’ heads. What secrets are there to teach? What does this mean for our future? Why is it so dangerous outside of the temple now?
…Had Sifu An been responding to questions we’d only started to form in our heads that whole time?
I hear the sound of a faint sigh just after Sifu An turn the corner.