We were explorers. We were Alliance. We meddled and we were meddled with. Only one constant: we were together. Until we weren't. We're together now, but different from before. I'm different. I look at Simon and see Daddy turn away from him. (From us.) We hide and are found. Sometimes when I hide, I'm still standing in front of him. But today it's like before, even if he doesn't know it.
At least something good had come from his time in the holding center. Simon studied the slip of paper as if it held information that needed discerning, instead of a name and address he'd long since memorized.
He hadn't expected quite this show of appreciation for setting a broken nose while waiting in a processing cell, but Charlie's gratitude had known no bounds. Simon had assured the man that he owed him nothing, that he couldn't leave it unset. Besides, it was clear from his dress and diction that Charlie's financial state was precarious. But when the fawning began to draw attention Simon didn't need, he'd asked if the man knew anybody who might have information about the Academy.
And now here he was outside a papaver parlor, the one that matched the address on the slip. Inside the blackout zone. His father had been extraordinarily clear that he would not again grace a law enforcement facility with his presence to provide for his release. If he continued down this path…
What did it matter? Emotionally he felt out of place in their home, like the Sanguine bush mother had torn out of the garden when it no longer fit her vision.
His breast pocket crinkled as he touched River's last letter. It told him all he needed to know. Find your kiai, Simon. That's what his father had repeatedly said. Maybe this was the moment.
Once inside, Simon hovered at the parlor's entry, telling himself that he was letting his eyes adjust. The furnishings were muted. The sitting pillows were hues of gold, green, and purple, and the low tables looked to be a warm golden hue, such as oak. As surprisingly luxurious as this place appeared, items crafted from Earth-that-was wood were beyond precious. Likely it was made of the native, and slightly more reasonably priced, white spruce. The clientèle was far more upscale than he'd expected, given Charlie's look and the tales whispered in high school by boys with older, supposedly worldlier brothers.
There were a couple dozen people, both Asian and Caucasian, in groups of two or three. Most were smoking and the air was sickly sweet. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to inoculate against the second hand effects. The euphoria lasted longer than with some other narcotics, and though the crash wasn't nearly as debilitating, cravings were inevitable. Besides, he liked his mind in its unadulterated state, thank you very much. He needed every one of his wits about him. Unfortunately, if he were chosen for the mostly random hospital drug checks, he'd still test positive. That couldn't be avoided.
Simon's here. Don't need the needle. Don't want it. Never know what's inside it, what's inside me. Different flavor. Different result. Can't predict. Not scientific if you can't predict. Choice narrows down to the tip of a needle.
His legs felt a bit rubbery. Perhaps he should recline at one of the low tables. Or should he wait to be seated? Should he approach the bartender at the counter? He chose the latter. "Excuse me, ma'am. I'm looking for a Mr. René. Or perhaps René is his – or possibly her – given name."
The woman's face gave no flicker of recognition that Simon had asked his question. If it weren't for her tapered fingers continuing to wipe the fluted glass, she might have been a wax figure.
Behind him, Simon heard sniggers. He told himself it had nothing to do with him; that they were likely drug induced giggles, but that didn't stop the tops of his ears from growing hot. He hoped the low lighting made their likely bright redness inconspicuous.
"Go," said a voice from behind.
Simon turned. A man was reclining near a square table, the pipe in front of him, resting on a tripod of stubby fingers. Sharing the table was a man with a jet-black goatee and a red silk cravat.
"Go?" Simon mimicked, mentally scrambling to figure out how he'd messed this up already. There was no sign indicating this was a members-only establishment.
"It's a game. Have you, perchance, heard of it?" asked the man as he passed the pipe to his friend.
Simon smiled, relaxing just a bit. Finally, a topic he knew well. "My sister and I, we played it as kids."
"You think this a children's game, eh?" the man asked, reaching a hand inside his coat.
Lao tian ye, he was going to be shot in a papaver for inadvertently insulting a man. Only a matter of time, he supposed.
The cravat-wearing man placed a hand on his friend's arm, though his comments were directed at Simon. "You, too? My grand-père taught me Go when I could not have been more than, what, twelve?"
Simon smiled weakly, choosing not to add that he had first played at age six. He did possess some sense of self-preservation.
The man's smile broadened, and he needed for Simon to join them. He supposed the smile was meant to reassure, but it was reminiscent of a carnival barker who was trying to gain one's confidence. Simon tamped down his misgivings and lowered himself to the velvet cushion, choosing the one across from the cravat-wearing man.
"I'm Claude," continued the cravat-wearing man, "and this is Bruno. And you are?"
"Simon Ta—" It was half out of his mouth before he could stop himself. If he wasn't careful, his epitaph would read, 'Well mannered, but lousy at lying on his feet.' "—mil. It's a pleasure to meet you."
After a cordial exchange of handshakes, Claude gestured to the table around which they sat. "Well, Mr. Tamil - may I call you Simon? Could we interest you in a game of Go?"
What he thought was simply a table was actually a Go board. Water rings and burn marks tattooed its gridded surface, something that would have horrified his mother.
"Thank you for the offer, but I'll need to decline. I was hoping to find a person by the name of René." It lacked any subtlety, which Simon knew to be a sign of his impatience. He had to get himself under control.
All broken like the special vases - don't run inside the house, River - slipping sliding knocking one two vases down smash crash. All the little pieces mingle on the floor. I try and try but which piece goes where? Some lost; some too much for one vase. Simon tries to help. He always tries to help.
"I might know something about René," said the one identified as Bruno.
"What is it you might know?" Simon tried to keep his tone interested, but light. They'd probably already identified him as a mark. He'd learned that lesson the hard way. No need to feed it more than he did by simply showing up.
"How about a game first?"
"You can put me in touch with René?"
Bruno shrugged. "Maybe even tonight."
Simon resisted the urge to demand they tell him now, instead schooling his posture to stay as it was. But if this man really could connect him with the person Charlie promised would know about the Academy? It might be the break for which he'd been hoping.
He inclined his head, giving a reserved nod of appreciation. Simon's previous inquiries had taught him to question everyone and anything they had to offer, which led him to reiterate the offer. "So after we play Go, you'll share what you know about René."
"If you win."
Wagering. He'd assumed as much. "And if I lose?"
Claude smiled his salesman smile again. "You look like a man with a little means. I'm sure you have something of value to wager."
"Maybe," Simon said cautiously. "I haven't any platinum, and only a few credits."
Credits generated by refunding the ticket his parents had given him. Even though it tied him up inside to do so, he'd played the contrite son, repenting his folly. They thought he'd capitulated to their wishes, that he'd agreed with them that River was fine. It was spring break - his last - and they had suggested he see the beauty of Sihnon before returning to the hospital. They'd been eager to believe him. It bought him time, and now information. He hated to mislead them, but it was better this way; if something went wrong, they wouldn't have to lie. He real wish was that they never had to find out the truth.
They show us captures of our families, reminding us why we behave. (They're not Simon, don't have to do what THEY say.) Ge ge drowns in expectations. He is a doctor. But he never laughs a real laugh. Never smiles a real smile. I need him; I always have. But those captures - he needs me too.
After discussing the amount in what could only be labeled "haggling," they settled on a number that was certainly higher than it should be, but low enough he didn't appear the complete hai zi zi.
Bruno took another deep pull, and then used the pipe to signal a server. Her wide-legged silk pants and straight black bobbed hair swung in unison as she moved toward them.
"My name is Elodie. How may I assist you?"
Her eyes were dark, her face a mask of neutral hospitality, yet the vest she wore held a riot of colored birds. It was an odd juxtaposition and for reasons he couldn't identify, other than the whispered tales of school boys about what happened in blackout zone businesses, he found himself desperately hoping desperately that she worked here of her own accord.
I shake my head and feel my hair move around my neck. It's free, therefore I'm free. I'm not at school, not tied down. Simon found me. Simon will find me. Simon's finding me when I've lost myself. Even if I'm still standing right here.
The men requested the stones and ordered sake. He would have let the shock register on his face, but he'd exceeded his raised eyebrow allotment hours ago. Were they really that confident?
"And you, sir?"
He'd prefer to order nothing at all, but then considered water, which was surely a worse insult than passing completely. "Ginger tea, please."
She returned with a tray balanced on one hand and three of what looked like three-legged stools balanced in the other. With an amazing show of grace and strength, she shifted from standing to kneeling next to their table in one fluid motion. The stools she set beside them; Simon realized they weren't for sitting, but were low side tables.
Simon's service was the last. She flashed him a quick, impish smile of bright, even teeth before steeping the tea, pouring two cups, and taking a ceremonial sip. And with a low bow, followed by an equally fluid rising, she was gone.
While Simon was observing the niceties of ceremony (and was now feeling reasonably confident he could drink it without fear of being drugged), they had decided that it was Bruno who would play. On the surface, a good deal. Bruno wasn't the leader of this duo, but it also meant Claude could be focused on Simon while he was focused on the game. Not a stone had been played, yet strategies had already begun.
Simon pushed the thought aside, turning his focus to the actual game. Even with the stakes so high, Simon offered Bruno first play. He would have demurred the offering of a handicap for being second, but it was never offered. The crisp click of stones on wood provided Simon with a moment's illusion that he was home and all was well.
What in the name of Zu Fu's St. Jude's medal? Bruno really couldn't be playing a ladder there, could he? He'd known post-surgery brain injury patients who played better than this. Was Bruno that much of a sha gua? Were they both?
Or was he the sha gua?
The best way to reach a diagnosis was to run a few tests. Simon set up an opportunity for his opponent to make a ko threat against him. And Bruno missed it. But on the other hand, he learned the Go proverb was true: even a moron connects against a peep.
Now the man was running his fingers though the stones as he considered his next move. Simon's jaw clenched. Of all the lowbrow behaviors…
But he had wagered. Why? Simon gave his stone a satisfying click as he placed it, then leaned back slightly, taking a sip of his tea and trying to be subtle about assessing his opponent. No, opponents. They looked confident, as if they actually expected Bruno to win.
Simon's irritation quickly turned to alarm. He needed this win for the information it promised and to reserve his limited funds. But during his brief foray into this off-grid society, honor mattered. Maybe as much, if not more, to these people than to those among his class.
Perhaps this was what they meant by 'going native.' Simon shuddered.
"Are you all right? Is the tea not to your liking?" inquired Claude, his voice cloying with false concern.
Completely trouncing this man exponentially increased his odds of this ending with a physical thrashing – his own. Jian gui! He'd never been trained to intentionally be a korigatachi. It went against his nature to be that sloppy. Yet, somehow he needed to do just that - but not getting so carried away he would lose. It didn't matter if this game finished before his tea cooled, it was going to be the longest game of his life.
It is a long game of hide and seek. So long I send him clues. It isn't a good hiding spot. Some parts are fun. New dances, new voices. New noisy and quiet tools.
As the game wore down to its inevitable conclusion, his opponent tapped his fingers arrhythmically at the table edge and Claude's lip curled as if ready to snarl. For all his effort, Simon was still beating him handily. He hoped it was close enough for them to honor their word and just move on without making a scene.
As the last stone clicked into place, their server appeared. As she swept the stones into the appropriate bowls she said, "I'm so sorry to tread on the end of your game, but the owner has requested these stones." She looked over to Simon, sounding a bit surprised. "And requested you."
Eyes open or close, binary system. On or off. Cause. Effect. Calculate the angles.
He looked between the server and the men. Her features were composed so as to be nearly unreadable, but there was a lightness to her. On the other hand, their looks held resentment as dark as the black. He wanted to collect the wager – finding René was his entire reason for being here – but his intuition told him it was best to just walk away without asking for his spoil.
"Dang ran. Please show me the way." Standing, he found himself to be at least a head taller than this tiny woman. He followed her upstairs, though a door, down a hall, to another door. So far it was a route he felt, if needed, that he could backtrack.
She stopped suddenly, saying with an almost teasing quality, "Perhaps before you meet Mr. Qing, you would like to freshen up?"
He could feel himself blush, which in itself was embarrassing; he was a medical resident. But given the stress and the amount of tea he'd consumed, he was not turning the offer down.
"Uh, thank you, I would. Thanks."
Her eyes narrowed, seeming to size him up. "I will go ahead and make preparations. You'll wait here, yes?
Versus making a run for it? "Yes."
The washroom was even more elegant than the space downstairs, but he could not attend to the details; his mind raced to more pressing matters. Why he was being summoned? Surely gambling wasn't illegal here, was it? Maybe he was going to be captured and sold to a Companion as an indentured man. He stopped trying to make sense of it. His ideas were growing wild.
He splashed water across his face, drying it, and then examining his reflection. How strange that he looked so much like the fresh-scrubbed medical student whose formal picture was taken that fall; he felt as if he should look far different, somehow.
Upon exiting, Elodie was waiting, though without the game stones. She led him a short distance down the hall, ushering him inside. The room was square, but the heavy oak desk was set at an angle, giving the space the illusion of a diamond shape. Accentuating that sense were the two walls of monitors flanking the desk. They showed images of the parlor, the bar, every stock room, hallway, and entrance. Simon looked for the table where he'd been with Bruno and Claude, but they were nowhere in sight.
Behind the desk sat a man of uncertain age. His dark hair was thinning and combed straight back. He had high, flat cheekbones and wrinkles that could define a hard-lived 60 or a well-tended 80. Simon wished he could see the man's eyes, but they were hooded behind a pair of rose-colored glasses.
"Jean René Qing," announced Elodie, "may I present Simon Tamil?"
As in the Qing Dynasty? Simon bowed and said with automatic courtesy, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Qing." It was then that the man's full name struck home with meaning. Jean René Qing. This had to be the man Charlie had meant. His holding cell 'friend' had sent him to a drug kingpin. Shiny.
"Do you know what is a sandbagger, Mr. Tamil? It is a man who plays far below his skill level, intentionally lulling his adversary into a false sense of skill and security before taking his money."
Simon held his posture still and straight, resisting the urge to swallow against the bile rising in his throat. Until this moment, he'd not considered the ramifications of cheating, even if it wasn't for the reasons Qing was implying.
"However, Thuy—" He nodded to the screen that framed the bartender as she poured drinks downstairs. "Tells me you did not initiate the game. 'Self-hobbled' is how she described your form of play."
Qing smiled in a way that suggested amusement.
Simon took the narrow opening. "I assure you, sir, I wasn't—"
A wave of Qing's hand silenced him and he continued as if Simon hadn't spoken. "Besides, you never collected the bet, so—"
"Shen me?" asked Simon before he could stop himself.
Qing gave a slight shake of his head.
"What do you mean, I didn't collect? You are the man I've been seeking, aren't you?" That had come out a little more demanding than he intended. He tried to soften it, acknowledging Qing's accent and the culture it suggested. "Ah, n'est pas?"
The amused smile was back. "Oui. But did those men introduce me to you? Did they even tell you to climb the stairs? No. Elodie collected you at my request. Bruno and Claude? They are as Hamlet's grave diggers. Nothing more."
His host brushed away imaginary lint, seemingly finished, yet Simon had no idea how to respond. He wanted to ask why this man had agreed to meet with him. He wanted to pepper him with questions about the Academy, finding out how River was faring (if only it could be true that she was all right).
This whole night had been a series of attempts to find his footing on shifting sand, each step more precarious than the last. Finally, Simon realized that when the sands were shifting this quickly, sometimes it was best to just be still. So he waited.
After what felt like ages of stoic silence, René spoke. "I find you refreshing, Mr. Tam."
"It's Tamil, xian sheng."
Qing flipped up the rose-colored shades and leaned in toward him.
"Let us not play at such games. You are Simon Tam, from a rather distinguished family. Distinguished enough that there are no records of last month's brush with the law. Well, no official records. You've been inquiring about an Alliance-run academy. Some might even say questioning it, which is a stone's throw from criticizing it. What, I wonder, would cause a shining star such as you to question the constellation that gives its brightness meaning?"
Simon shivered. If River were here, she'd say someone was walking over his grave. He prayed he wasn't digging his own.
Qing rose from behind his desk, signaling Simon to join him at the winged chairs across the room. "It takes skill to play as poorly as you did tonight. I think you may be a worthy opponent, one with whom I might truly match wits."
That was not what he expected to hear. "I'm not sure I can live up to those expectations, sir."
"Such manners. How I do miss them. Alas, it is but one downside of running a business without Alliance approval. It is a good question for you to ask yourself, Mr. Tam. Can you live in a world without manners? Without an appreciation for ceremony? It nibbles away at one's soul."
"Shi, xian sheng." It seemed prudent to not point out that it might be the drug empire and being a lord of that empire that was devouring his soul.
"I have an offer for you, Mr. Tam. We shall play Go. You shall tell me your story. As long as both engage me, you have my ear. If I like what I hear, I can open doors for you."
"If you don't like what you hear?"
He shrugged. "I will ban you from my parlors. You may find the answers you need elsewhere, but most likely you will flop and gasp like a fish out of water, eventually running out of funds and options, returning to school and then to your inevitable medical practice of solid clients with hollow issues, pretending everything is all right."
It cuts, so I was set free. Made rootless. It hurts because Simon must cut his roots, too. Roots attach, but roots tie down. I'm watching him grow, reaching for the sunlight, using talents he didn't know he had.
His stomach clenched. That was not a future he was willing to accept. He sat down in the proffered chair.
It was the strangest feeling of déjà vu, as if the game he'd played downstairs had been a rough draft of this one. The table was exquisite with wedge-cut rings that showed its age, and if he were a betting man – which he'd apparently become – he'd say that this one was Kaya wood.
The stones Elodie had brought up waited in matching bowls, and she even presented them both with a fresh pot of tea. In the conversational tones of gentlemen, they discussed who would start and if there should be any handicap awarded. Simon deferred to Qing's opinion, as he'd seen Simon play.
Qing provided both. "But I insist. You are indulging my request to talk and play simultaneously."
So they did.
First haltingly, then with a smoothness born of intensity, he told Qing about the school River was attending, the sporadic correspondence, and the coded messages in what did arrive. About River herself. (Oh, mei mei.) Occasionally Qing would ask a clarifying question, but for the most part he let Simon talk, the click of the stones telling him to go on with his story. The only thing Simon shied away from, and he refused to examine why, were questions about his parents.
As if waking from a dream, he realized the game was nearly over. He'd talked nearly non-stop for hours. He was about to lose, but had played far better than he would have imagined. Perhaps he should trust his intuition more the next time he played Go.
Elodie brought a fresh pot and cleared the board. Qing sipped his tea, staring out to a place just above Simon's head. Exhaustion was pulling at Simon, his body desperately wanting to give in to the hug of the overstuffed chair. He considered pinching himself to stay alert.
"Mr. Tam, thank you for this evening. It was most enjoyable for me. I have decided I would like to help you."
"You can help?"
He smiled. "'Can' was never at question. Would I – now that was the question. And I have decided that yes, I will."
"Xian sheng? Xie xie, xian sheng."
He should just accept it, but he couldn't help adding, "To what do I owe this most gracious gift?"
"I find you a curiosity worth closer attention. But do not fear; my interests are being met as well. That which keeps the Alliance off-balance is good for business."
Simon appreciated his frankness; it simplified the process of finding his ulterior motives. He tried not to think about the ethical implications of agreeing to be Qing's 'distraction'.
"I will need time to gather the keys necessary for this endeavor, perhaps two days. Come back in five."
"If you only need two days, why the delay?" Who had he become, that he'd boldly question a man who could end his life with the bending of his pinky?
"You will need the time."
"Why?" Didn't he understand that Simon didn't have time, not when he didn't know what was happening to River?
"There are first the practical matters, such as deciding the best ways to liquidate your trust fund."
Simon's head snapped up. Did he really know about Nai Nai's money or was he assuming?
"But that is a small matter. The da xiang that sits in this room is you. You, who need the time to prepare. Are you willing to take an ax and cut yourself free of the family tree, even if it is for naught? Willing to be branded an enemy of the state, or to die trying?"
Simon's laugh died in his throat. He wasn't joking.
The look Qing gave him held pity. "You think you know what is come. You've risked much, I'll grant you that. Will you risk it all? Be a kikashi stone for your sister's sake?"
Simon licked his lips, trying to organize his thoughts for a reply. He'd always had his family's support. He didn't know if he was strong enough without them.
"Do not answer now. If you come back next week, we will both have our answer. We shall play again and this time, I shall tell you tales."
Simon managed to walk out of the room with a reasonable facsimile of being pulled together. Once outside the study, with the door clicked shut behind him, his steps meandered. He bumped against the hall wall, drunk on euphoria and exhaustion.
And possibly second-hand papaver. His shot had most certainly worn off by now.
His thoughts spun like plates on dowel ends as he entered the parlor. He didn't know if he should be surprised or not that the place was as full as when he'd left, even if the customer base had almost completely turned over.
At the door, a hand touched his forearm, stopping him. He expected it to be Elodie, but it was the bartender. Qing had called her… something. He remembered he should thank her, but he couldn't quite recall why.
"Thuy? Right?" he asked. "I—"
She shook her head, placing something in his hand and saying, "A bamboo joint cannot be cut."
My hand clenches tight in pain. I understand. I do not comprehend. He coos and, finger by finger, examines it with tender touches.
"Silly rabbit, you were the one warning me of the thorns. What have we here?" He pulls out the multi-blade knife I gave him last birthday (this birthday, the birthday yet to be) and forces the splintered thorn out of my palm.
"There's the trouble. Do you want to keep it?" (What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.) So I nod. He grins, pleased with my silliness. He's always pleased with me, even when I tell him horrible things.
With that, Thuy pushed him out the door and into the morning light. Simon blinked, wishing he had Qing's glasses. It had rained while he was inside. Breathing deep, he appreciated the crisp air, a shocking change embraced by his body. Down the block a lilting voice offered fresh fruit. Just hearing the vendor's promise of food made his stomach growl. Perhaps she sold oranges – something that didn't require washing before eating.
His eyes adjusted, and he opened his hand. Inside was a single black Go stone.
He looks after me. He's always looked after me. He always will. Present. Past. Future. They dance and dance inside my mind and I'm not sure when I am. But Simon does. Simon is home. He wakes me. He knows me, and yet loves me and always will. And I do him. Someday I will look after him.
We are explorers. We are crew. We mend and we are mended. Serenity finds us. We find each other. We are home.