Covers Lightly Worn From Handling (III)

“No, it’s true; I shouldn’t buy it.  But I’m lousy at business, which is why I’m a bookseller.  If I wanted to get rich, I’d sell drugs or something.”

She laughed, startled; he went on.  “I’m in it because of the stories — the ones about the books as much as inside the covers.  This Thackeray set, for instance:  One day, twenty years from now, a collector will wander in and see it.  I’ll tell him the story of Tauchnitz the publisher, and he’ll be fascinated — the whole tale of the great linen factories of Bohemia, this curious series of English books printed in Germany, the international copyright treaties that resulted… He’ll eat all that up, because he’s a collector.  And you’re not, so why should you care?  I’m lecturing again; I really shouldn’t inflict that on my customers.”

She frowned, shook her head.  “No, it’s not that.  I’m just trying to understand.  Not why these books are special, but why any of that matters at all…”

General Huang scowled at the board.  There had been a disturbance downstairs, one of his guards harassing  a student, he thought.  Not that he cared; they were here to learn to handle themselves, and if they couldn’t take a little hazing now and then, war would come as a bit of a shock.  Better to find out now.  No, it wasn’t that which had him irritated; the General was annoyed because the noise had made him forget what he’d been doing.

He glanced at Master Sun to see if he’d noticed the General’s distraction.  Master Sun was studying the board.  His face betrayed no sign of impatience.  It never did, though; that was no guide.  Master Sun seemed at peace, contemplating his queen.

…the queen…

“Ha!” cried the General, and moved his knight to attack.  That was it; he’d been trying to trap the queen!  And to think he’d almost forgotten.  How silly of him!  He must be getting old.

The Master and his young charge had stayed on in the town after the army left.  A garrison force arrived and set up in the empty houses, and some of the former servants returned to the lower village and began to tend the neglected crops.

Nobody knew whether the hated British would return, and the British weren’t telling.  Thus the watch that was kept from here on the mountain passes was sharp, and in contrast to the slack discipline seen in the rest of garrison life.  The Master observed this and many other things in his daily walks; the boy observed the Master and saw to his few needs.

One day word arrived from the capitol.  The Master and his charge were sent north several miles, to a specially chosen site atop a small plateau.  With them came their few possessions, a small escort, and a hundred young men who were to help found the Master’s new school.

Before the rainy season was well underway, the structures had been raised, though they would be years in the finishing.  But the roofs were tight, the floors smooth, and there was enough space for everyone — which, given the torrential downpours even at this altitude, was a welcome relief.

But when the weather improved the Master sent most of the students back to the army, keeping only eleven to train — or twelve, counting the boy.  The Master did not at first, but the boy thought otherwise.  The Master had not expected anything other than perfect obedience from the boy.  He placed minor obstacles in the path of the child’s training, not opposing him… not exactly.  He assigned extra duties to conflict with training times; the boy rushed through them in time for the second half of the day’s lesson.

The next day the boy arrived at arms training to find all the spare practice swords had mysteriously vanished overnight; he paused, thoughtful, then left.  The following day he arrived carrying his own practice sword.  He had quite obviously made it himself; it was crude, but it served the purpose.  The Master did not react, but later in the lesson offered a minor correction to the boy as he had been doing with the others all along.

After the lesson, he called the boy into his small chamber above the dojo.  The boy went, a bit frightened but defiant.  He was surprised to hear the Master say, “I am ashamed, Boy, that I have never learned your name.”

“The old woman always just called me Boy,” he stammered.  He had no memory of his own family, only the Englishwoman he had served in the village.

“You will not be a boy forever.”  The Master scrutinized him; the boy was quite small.  Perhaps… but no, even he would grow someday.  “For now, you will be called Doj, for you are small for the work.”

It was a joke, but nobody laughed.  A small joke, the Master thought, unsmiling.  He waved Doj out and went back to tending his bonsai.

It was very soon after this that Colonel Huang arrived, furious about all the men the Master had sent back.  He had sent one hundred; he expected one hundred to be trained.

Master Sun met him in the small courtyard, in front of the assembled students.  He listened patiently to the Colonel’s harangue, then bowed slightly.  “I thank the Colonel for his instruction,” he said.  “Perhaps the Colonel might care for some refreshment?  Something cooling to drink, I think — over a game of chess?”  He bowed slightly and stepped into the dojo, gesturing for Huang to follow.

The colonel blinked, caught off guard.  He had expected excuses, pleading, perhaps argument, but not this.  He scowled, infuriated, but — It would look ridiculous not to follow, he thought.  He went in.

The next morning, as they were going back down toward town, the colonel remarked to his aide, “We will send younger students next time, and in groups of twenty.”  He was quite satisfied.  It did not occur to him to wonder when he’d stopped being angry.

One of his escort noticed, but he said nothing.  He had learned the virtue of silence.

You know how this works: Send me money and I’ll keep writing.

The tale continues to grow in the telling.  I’m a chapter ahead now; I took a little extra time to make sure it would fit, and it didn’t.  Now there’s one more part, and it seems to work for now.  I suppose we’ll find out together if it all comes together at the end.

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