Chapter 135: A Musical Interlude, the First Movement
Liam stepped from the Markses' basement into Mr. Chan's office and nodded to the Akita behind him. Nathanial smiled timorously and half-raised a paw in farewell before the portal winked shut. The Rottweiler turned to his host and bowed slightly before speaking in Cantonese, <<Thank you for agreeing to allow us to meet here tonight.>>
The middle-aged Pekinese bowed much more deeply in return, giving Liam a chance to unobtrusively glance about. The office appeared to be quite ordinary. Antique bookshelves lined the wall around the heavy, antique mahogany desk, with a shorter one facing the desk in the front, allowing one of Liam's calligraphy drawings to hang at just above eye level. The ornately carved, dark wooden furniture greatly exceeded the age of their owner, and quite possibly the age of the country they now called home. To the left through a large picture window comprised of thick, bulletproof glass lay a spectacular view of a well-manicured lawn interspersed with tall trees as it sloped down to the waters of the Northwest Arm. The one jarring feature of this entire room had to be the flooring; for almost all other rooms wood or bamboo was the flooring of choice, but here it was tile, a nice tile, to be sure, but tile nonetheless. Liam knew the reason to be the fire-retardant properties within them, and knew the walls and ceilings also hid similar secrets. This room should be nigh impervious to fire, flood, and storm. Yet it did not keep out the daughter of its owner, who nearly brought ruin to all.
Mr. Chan answered slowly, <<It is truly an honour, Venerable Smith.>> His words may have been slow, but his chi swirled and betrayed the golden-furred Dog's agitation. <<I...am concerned about Betty. She has said she went to the funeral with you as ordered, but...>> He trailed off and tried again. <<I know she is a delicate flower, and a funeral would be very taxing for her. She's very sensitive to the emotions of others, and being around so many distraught people must have been exhausting, but she...>> The utterly deluded father bowed in an attempt to hide his fears. <<I have never seen her so spent, both emotionally and physically. I worry.>>
Liam expected this to an extent, yet he could not formulate an appropriate tack to take. He respected Hao Chan in every aspect except as a father. The Dog was utterly naïve, blinded, and a fool whenever his daughter was involved. He doted on her in a most disgusting fashion. Perhaps that was a bit harsh; not once had Liam heard of Hao neglecting his duties as a businessman or Monk, and Betty had taken a great variety of artistic lessons and kept several of them up despite a child's penchant for fickleness. Mr. Chan must have insisted she retain those classes she showed promise in.
The Ancient One allowed himself the luxury of silence for a few seconds while he thought. No appropriate answer presented itself, but he forged ahead anyway. <<The funeral was taxing for many, including your daughter. Facing the truth of mortality is not an easy thing for the young...and even for their elders. It is easy to find oneself removed from such truth in this society where everything is remote and cloaked in technological illusion. Death has become, for many, a plot device in the dramatic arts, a minor inconvenience in video games, or even a special effect with no more emotional weight than the explosion accompanying it in the cinema. Your daughter was well removed from the truth of the world.>>
His colleague showed how distraught he was by daring to exclaim, <<But you're immortal! It's easy for you to talk about 'the truth of mortality' when you don't have to face it!>> There were no attempts at formality or signs of respect.
Liam struggled to control his anger as he hissed, <<I know more of mortality than any mortal can ever hope to; I have died many times. I have lost family members through disease, violence, age, accident, and just about any other way possible! I have killed my lover with my own paws. I have taken my own life. I have seen the grief, the despair, and the anger in those I have left behind. Death has been my constant companion, Mr. Chan, and the god of the underworld my patron. Do not presume to tell me facing such a truth is easy! You get to reunite with those you love when all is said and done! I have to continue on in this world without them! Muireann is lost to me for eternity, and so shall all my other children be!>>
<<But she's just a child! She should not have to face such things!>>
Gods, that mind-set could be so annoying. <<She will remain a child with such coddling no matter what her age. She is sixteen, Mr. Chan, and more than old enough to learn the lesson. She is apparently old enough to kill, so it is high time she understand what that means!>>
The Pekinese's bulbous eyes protruded yet further. <<So...she is responsible for the Markham child's death. I thought it might be the case when you said she had dishonoured herself even more but that you would take care of it. How? When? The police...?>>
Liam rubbed his forehead. What a vexing day. <<I did not say she has killed, only that she was old enough to do so. Nathanial Marks and his two younger brothers have been forced to fight and to kill; the youngest is only eleven. Betty is sixteen. She is old enough to get her driver's license, and motor vehicle accidents are exceedingly common. Every person should have to learn their actions have consequences before getting behind the wheel of such dangerous machines.>>
<<You also did not say she isn't responsible.>>
The Rottie walked to the window and stared out at the grey water of the Northwest Arm as half of his mind considered the events he had just divulged to the Pekinese. What were the gods' intentions with Nathanial? Was Poseidon involved? <<No, I did not. I will say nothing one way or the other, as I have promised. Ask her yourself if you wish to know.>>
The Pekinese adjusted his black and red shirt; the Dog preferred a more traditional style in his clothing when not working. The changshan, as it was properly known, was made by the same tailors who produced Liam's clothing and the 'kung fu' garb of his friends. Liam, in fact, wore very similar clothes today, except in indigo and dark grey. <<When she is feeling better. I do not wish to upset her further.>>
Liam kept from rolling his eyes with effort. Donald Markham would not be 'feeling better,' and 'upsetting him further' was exactly what Betty had gone out of her way to do. She did not exactly deserve such consideration in return. The Ancient One took a deep, quiet breath in an attempt to calm himself.
However, Hao Chan spoke before Liam slowed his chi down. <<Honoured Smith, I sense you are angry. I apologise for causing offence; the troubles in my family are minor and should not intrude upon you. If my daughter displeases you, I will have her moved to a different school.>>
She displeased him, oh how she displeased him, but such pandering behaviour on Hao's part served only to raise Liam's ire further. It did remind him that the Pekinese was a chi adept as well, and though he had little skill in using his chi to sense things remotely, the middle-aged Dog was capable of doing so when he tried. Liam ruthlessly squashed his emotions and seized control of his whirling chi. It took less time, but more effort and energy, than actually calming down. <<No. Do not transfer her. If I cannot teach one child to understand such universal concepts like responsibility and mortality, then I am the failure.>> Left unsaid, but present all the same, was that Hao should have taught these well before now.
Betty was not a sociopath; she showed genuine grief at parts of the funeral, but she quickly reverted to her normal, despicable self. Then again, as they'd left and Liam had asked if she would see Deidre Markham, she dove into such a state that Geoff would be able to commiserate with her. Was it because Deidre was a mother? Liam did not think Betty was close to Fang-Li, her mother, though that could very well be why the thought of forgiveness was so powerful. Hao did not speak of his wife often. It could also be the idea of forgiveness on its own; such mercy was rare and would touch any capable of being touched.
The Pekinese bowed deeply and was about to offer abject apologies, but Liam cleared his throat loudly. Hao looked up with obvious worry in his face, though he remained bent over. The Ancient One gestured for him to stand straight. <<I must hurry if I am to talk to Betty before the others arrive. Has Fang-Li returned from Hong Kong yet? This is an abnormally long visit for her.>> He wanted to ask Hao what the relationship between Betty and her mother was like, but he did not know if he would get the truth, rather than the rose-coloured 'truth' the father saw around his 'princess.' Hong Kong was where both the elder Chans came from, and all of their parents still lived there.
Hao stood upright, but not straight. He most obviously cringed before trying to mask his emotions as he was raised to do. <<She is not here.>> Liam waited for more, but it seemed little would be forthcoming. The silence stretched for half a minute before the full answer come out. <<Fang-Li fought with Betty last April over some small matter. When my wife came to me for help, I sided with Betty. She...flew home and has not been back since. I have spoken to her but rarely, and Betty has not heard from her at all.>>
Ah. This might be the cause. Honestly, while Liam knew Fang-Li had gone to Hong Kong in April, he thought it was to visit family. He was shocked he had not heard the reason, but Hao likely thought losing control of one's family was shameful and sought to keep it secret. <<What did they fight about?>>
The long-furred Dog finally straightened and spoke clearly, as was proper. <<Fang-Li has long insisted Betty give her all of the passwords for her social media sites in order to properly monitor her activities. I felt it was unnecessary, as Betty would not do anything to shame the family. Fang-Li found Betty was using some alternate, undisclosed accounts and did not like what was being said on them. I do not know the details -- I did not care to learn them -- but Fang-Li told me Betty said some terrible things both to her and online to others. I did not believe my wife, to my great shame.>>
Given the timing of what occurred, it may have been that Fang-Li found Betty's first concerted assault on Donald Markham -- the crushing crescendo began at the end of August -- and confronted her about it. Hao's negligence in the matter, and the almost certain disdainful dismissal of his wife's concerns, would have allowed the current drama to unfold. Liam could well imagine how those scenes had played out, and thus did not bother softening his words. <<Yes, it is to your shame and a grievous loss of your honour. Your duty as head of this house was to listen to your wife first, and trust in her, then speak to your child. Your wife is no fool, you know this, yet you dismissed her out of paw because you did not wish to believe Betty was capable of doing wrong. You showed Fang-Li great disrespect and undermined her authority. Call her and offer your most sincere and abject apologies. I hope she forgives you for the terrible wrong you have committed against her. If necessary, fly to Hong Kong and apologise in person.>>
Hao Chan took the berating stoically. He bowed deeply once Liam finished. <<Again, revered Ancient One, I ask you to allow me to step aside. I have no honour left to me and no value in your eyes. Let me redeem what little honour I may. I can change my will to name whomever you wish as the beneficiary, and give the only thing I have left of worth -- money -- to him or her. My daughter is a disgrace, and I am worse for being so blind.>>
It was times like this that Liam actually agreed with Geoff about the old ideals of honour and duty -- granted, about the only time he did. The Ancient One was still feeling annoyed, so he left Hao bent over. <<If I saw no value in you, Mr. Chan, I would let you step aside. The very fact that I refuse shows I yet trust you. You have remarkable judgement in every aspect of your professional life, and your ability to manage the affairs of the Monks has earned you the respect of your fellows and all of the Nightwalkers we aid. It is your personal life that is causing trouble. It is extremely rare for me to have ever counselled this, but you need to treat your family members more like employees. Your wife should have earned the same respect you give Dawei--" He was Hao's trusted aide and managed the company when Hao was otherwise occupied. "--and you would never dismiss his concerns out of paw. You would also never give blind trust to a Fur of sixteen when a long-term, valued employee warned you of possible problems. In short, trust your wife, for she has earned it, and do not blindly trust Betty, for she is young, and every young person is bound to make careless mistakes. I have lived through my teens many times, and I still find myself succumbing to the vagaries of pubescent hormones. Betty does not have my experience. She will make mistakes. It is your job to catch and correct them.>>
Liam walked over to the door and spoke over his shoulder once he placed his paw on the handle. <<Now, I would speak to Betty. Please welcome the other musicians should they arrive before I finish addressing her.>>
The Pekinese clasped his paws over his head which, in his bent-over state, put them in front of him. <<As you command, honoured master.>>
Liam chose to take that as a reference to his mastery of martial arts. He could feel his associate's chi pulsate as the older body resisted an impulse, likely the urge to ask something. <<What do you wish to ask?>>
<<It is not my place, sir.>> Liam waited where he was, silent, until Hao lifted his head in confusion. The Pekinese met his eyes and sighed when Liam arched an eyebrow. Finally, Hao asked, <<I hoped you would ask Nathanial Marks to provide transport for me to Hong Kong. I do not wish to be away from work for as long as it would take to fly there and back. I would be willing to pay him richly.>>
Liam gestured for Hao to rise -- his chi spoke of the cramping muscles in the small of his back -- and considered the request. <<I will ask, but he will be unable to help any time soon. I cannot divulge the reason without violating the rules of confidentiality. The absolute soonest he could assist would be Thursday, and that is not a guarantee.>>
Hao straightened his back and muffled a groan of pain as the muscles spasmed. <<I understand, honoured master. Forgive my temerity.>>
Liam shrugged and opened the door. <<It was not an audacious request. It is much faster, but it is very taxing for him, and he is thus unable to help you at the moment.>>
The Fur reached out with a paw. <<Allow me to bring your instruments to the front room.>> The Ancient One acceded, turned down the hall, and made his way upstairs to Betty's bedroom. He knocked on her door.
Betty sounded most tearful and morose. "Yes, Daddy?"
The Rottie could have toyed with her and mimicked her father but decided against it. "I would speak with you."
There was a pause; Liam could almost hear her debating how to answer, and calculating the likelihood her father was there. The spoiled child split the difference. "Please, let me be. I don't want to talk right now. I'll be downstairs in a few minutes anyway."
Liam opened the door and stepped in, closing it behind him. The room had surprisingly little in common with Muireann's; scarcely any pink was to be found. The room contained much oak wood with a light stain, the bedding drew the eye with the pastel swirls of lilac, blue, and green, and the lilac walls -- minus an indigo accent wall behind the four-poster bed -- held several ink paintings. Betty sat upright upon her bed and swung her legs over the side. She looked most affronted at the breech of decorum.
Liam did not care. "I want to ask about today. Why did you react so much to Donald's mother's speech and offer of forgiveness? Is it because of what you said to Fang-Li?"
At the mention of her mother's name Betty's eyes filled with tears, and she hurled a pillow at him screaming, "Get out!" Liam heard Hao running toward the stairs before the doorbell chimed. There was a moment of silence both upstairs and down.
Liam easily caught the pillow and dropped it beside him. Downstairs, Hao trotted to the door. The Rottie cocked his head. "You regret saying such things to her? Surely you expected this result. Daddy's 'princess' always gets what she wants, yes?"
Betty dropped her face into the palms of her paws. "No... I-I didn't! I couldn't have--" She raised her head and glared at him fiercely. "Where is she!? Is she... Did Daddy actually--" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "--kill...?" She could not continue speaking around her constricted throat.
Liam walked over to the oak desk near the door and swung the indigo-upholstered wooden chair around. He sat down and placed his right ankle upon his left knee; his posture was intentionally relaxed and radiated an aura of command over this situation. He smiled ever so slightly though his eyes glittered dangerously in his dark face. "Now, 'little princess,' surely you would not think such a thing about your own father. Are you not the murderer? What is one more life to you?" Oh, the most delightful look of anguish that overtook her countenance!
"Agie, he-he said Daddy was a...a crime lord." Liam did not correct her mangling of Ahjeet Jhansi's name; he rather hoped she slipped and addressed him thusly once more. "You know things. Is my mom...?" Again, she lost control of her voice.
A knock at the door prevented him from answering. The Ancient One called out to Hao in a not-so-subtle emphasis of his position of power. "Enter."
The older Pekinese entered and bowed deeply to the seated Rottie. "Master Smith, the first of your guests have arrived." The father completely ignored his daughter.
"Very good. We shall be down shortly."
Betty looked back and forth between the two, obviously aware of the level of deference. She hesitatingly asked, "Daddy, aren't you...black belt, too? Doesn't that make you the same rank as Si Fu Smi--?"
Her father angrily cut her off. "Don't address him by such a low rank! He is a si jo, not a mere si fu! I warned you to speak respectfully to him!" She cringed as if expecting a blow.
Liam held up a paw to silence any further shouting. "I asked her to use that title, as I figured it would offend her sensibilities less than calling me 'Master Smith.'"
Again, the Dog bowed. "I apologise. I didn't mean to interfere, other than to ensure she didn't offer insult."
The damage was now, done so Liam merely waved him off. "You may leave." Hao remained bent over as he backed out closing the door behind him. The Rottie clasped his paws over his elevated knee. "'Si jo' is my proper rank, but you will address me as 'si fu' except around other martial artists. They would take as much offence than your father did, if not more."
She was now thoroughly terrified of him. Her thoughts were as obvious as if she spoke aloud. If her daddy was a crime lord like Jhansi said, what did that make Liam? What sort of person could make a powerful businessman and crime lord act so deferentially?
Liam did not wish to keep the others waiting, so he stood. "I learnt what I wished to know. You told your mother you wished she would die." Betty's chi indicated she was close to breaking down. "And your mother spoke to Chan Hao about it. They fought, and then she vanished. You have not heard from her since April seventeenth or eighteenth. You thought she had just gone home to Hong Kong, but when Jhansi said your father was some sort of criminal, you began to believe your wish had been granted; your mother was dead, just as you wanted." The child shook her head in disbelieving denial; a futile attempt to change what she feared was true. "Then, today, Deidre Markham offered what you now so desperately want: the forgiveness of a mother. Your mother. You were at a funeral, surrounded by the trappings of death, of the grave, and a mother like the one you believed your father had killed due to your tantrum offered you forgiveness." His voice became harsh. "Death is forever, Chan. Should Fang-Li be dead, should Chan Hao have killed her as his dear 'princess' commanded, you will never be able to ask for her mercy. She will never be able to hug you as she once did, Bet-Bet." Based off the pain she exhibited, he was certain he guessed correctly at the diminutive she had been addressed by, though doubling the name in such a manner was most common. "But of course, you care not about such things, or you would not have denied Mrs. Markham the love of her son. Surely, a callous killer such as you does not feel regret."
She wailed, "I just want my mother back!"
He most sweetly asked, "Then why not ask Mrs. Markham to return Fang-Li? Of course, she would ask for Donny in exchange." A most explosive sob broke free, prompting Liam to extend a measure of mercy. It was so satisfying to torment her though, especially when he thought of the sodden fur on Nathanial's face when the Akita had lain on the basement floor Saturday. He tempered his mercy with a harsh tone. "Oh, stop wailing, child. Your mother is still alive, no thanks to you. She is in Hong Kong, just as your father said. He is, I believe, planning on flying out to try to convince her to return once more. He has not finalized his plans. However, I think he would be more successful if you wrote a letter for him to deliver."
The sobs slowed. Hope mixed with disbelief and sorrow upon her face. "But Daddy took my computer."
Children these days. "I did not say type, I said write. You possess paws, pen, and paper. A proficient killer like you should be capable of simple scribing. Go wash your face and meet us in your front room; we have music to review."
'Princess Chan' sniffled pitifully. "Who are you? Why is Daddy so...scared of you?"
Liam walked to the door and grinned toothily over his shoulder as he left -- a grin that did not touch his flinty eyes. Utter silence ushered him out.
The front room had been rearranged so that eight dining chairs could be placed in a circle in the middle of the room. The close room contained a modern take on classic Chinese design and furniture. The large picture window looking out upon the street had red panels framing each side and dark drapes. A pattern of pale bamboo-coloured interlocked squares ran about the top of the four walls, providing contrast to the dark furniture pushed against the walls below; the thin, straight lines of the squares also countered the curved lines of the bowed legs of the thick pieces. The primarily grey walls allowed the art -- both the white and blue vases and the muted tones of the paintings -- to stand out. The coffee table still sat in the middle of the room and carried a mix of soft drinks, snacks, and a tea service.
Jeff Walker had arrived first and stood examining one the paintings. It was a stylized tiger done in black and gold on rice paper, with green vegetation in the background. The Chocolate Lab turned to look at the equally short Rottweiler. "Hi. Did you do this?"
Despite hearing him speak on multiple -- if still rare -- occasions, and even sing, Liam found himself once more surprised by the luxurious depth of that voice. He shook his head. "No, I do not use colour in my art. I paint strictly with black ink." Liam tipped his head in welcome. "Thank you for coming tonight on such short notice. I hope you had little difficulty in finding it."
Jeff shook his head. "No, not really. I just Googled it, and Mom knows several people in this neighbourhood. Several lawyers in her firm live within three blocks of here. It's really beautiful." Liam was unsure if the Lab referred to the area or the painting. The pudgy Dog tugged on the bottom hem of his untucked t-shirt, momentarily drawing it tighter over his cutely rounded belly. Kaoru's had been similarly cuddly in appearance. It was highly unlikely the Dog would make such adorable noises when tied, however. For a moment, Liam idly wished Nathanial had retained such a stomach...not that he had been permitted to enjoy that delectable ass. Jeff's fur fluffed out in embarrassment, and he wrapped his arms over his belly; Liam had stared a touch too long. "Um, sorry. Yeah, I know I need to--"
Liam cut in with a dismissive flick of his fingers and an assertive proclamation. "No, it is I who should apologise. I stared, for I find your belly most adorable, but you are right to desire a healthier lifestyle." Liam continued to speak as he went to the table to pour some jasmine tea, leaving the gaping -- if pleased -- Fur behind. "There are many martial arts schools I could recommend if you wish to learn self-defence along with exercise. I could even direct you to a few personal trainers to set up a weightlifting regime instead." He paused to sip the tea and spoke just as the other Dog opened his muzzle. "That is not relevant at the moment, for I hear our host coming downstairs and more guests at the door."
Jeff barely managed to utter a pawful of syllables over the next seven minutes as the remainder of the musicians arrived. Once they had all settled in their chairs around the room, Liam passed out the packets of music containing his short list of choices. He glanced about the too-small area; Liam had no space as large at his place, but both Faelen's and Nathanial's houses were much newer, and thus more spacious. Nathanial, in particular, had rooms that would be more ideal, and while the school drew teens from across the greater Halifax area, the majority of those present lived closer to the Akita than to the Pekinese. It was, however, not his house to volunteer, and he also did not wish Betty to be around the fragile Mage more than absolutely necessary.
Liam sat as well, with a fresh cup of tea, and noted he was the only one without a can of soda. Most of his compatriots also sported a bowl of chips or a small plate of sweets...though the green bean peng cookies remained untouched, as did the moon cakes. He took a deep breath of the jasmine-scented steam before setting the cup down on the small side table. "Welcome. Before we begin, I would like to offer our thanks to our hosts." He inclined his head to Hao Chan, who stopped by the door to see if anyone needed anything, and then Betty. The various musicians all murmured niceties to their hosts, who responded in kind. Fortunately, Hao seemed to realize Liam wanted discretion and did not make the usual protestations of honour. The Rottie glanced around the loose circle. "While I met you all at the audition, I do not know if you know each other. I would have you take turns identifying yourselves, your grades, and instrument or instruments." He caught Jeff's eyes. "You are the only singer who made the cut."
To Liam's left sat a rather squat and dumpy-looking Manx Cat. She raised her paw. "Eleanor Jones. I'm in class 12-A. I play the cello, primarily."
Next to her reclined a skinny, male Ragdoll Cat. "Dave Brown, same, viola." His colouration was most similar to a Siamese, but with longer fur, and -- apparently -- a more relaxed disposition.
Jeff Walker opened his mouth, but Betty purposefully cut him off. Her eyes still looked a little weepy, but her tongue had regained its lash. "Come on, Jeff, Smith already introduced you." She looked around imperiously. "I'm Betty Chan, if you didn't already know that. I'm in 10-A with Jeffrey here, and Smith, too. I play everything. I'll probably be in every set, so all of you try to do your best so you don't make me look bad."
The next Cat, an Abyssinian, growled faintly, but the high-pitched noise still cut through the silent room with ease. His gold eyes sparkled as he glared at Liam. "I see you somehow managed to find a few Dogs allegedly with talent in school. I hope they're up to snuff and you didn't pick them just because they're Dogs, too. 'Play everything,' my ass. I call bullshit."
Liam shrugged. "She plays the piano with exceptionally rare skill, regardless of age, gender, species, or any other possible point of discrimination. That is why she is here."
Eleanor looked up from her papers. "Piano? There aren't any piano pieces in here."
Liam kept his face perfectly blank. "She claims to play everything, and I found no piano music I wished to include. If she cannot back it up, I shall pick some then."
The Abyssinian laughed, drawing forth a gimleting glare from Betty. "I'm Gamaliel Mousawi. I'm in grade 11-B, and I play many instruments -- not all, just many -- but I primarily play the flute. My favourite hobby instrument is the ocarina."
The Amur Leopard to Liam's right put his sheaf of papers on his lap. "That explains the inclusion of this bit from The Magic Flute." He turned toward Jeff. "I guess you sing bass?"
Jeff nodded and almost answered, but Dave languidly waved a paw at the Leopard. "Wait your turn, Do-Jin." The Ragdoll glanced at the Hedgehog sitting between Leopard and Abyssinian. "Who are you?"
She gulped and almost whispered, "Heather McMaster. I'm in class 11-C; this is my first year at Dalhousie Collegiate. I'm from Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, so I--"
Gamaliel talked over her, and she stopped immediately. "We don't need a biography. I saw you playing the violin. Is that all you play?"
She shook her head; it was a rapid motion but confined to a few centimetres either direction. "No, I play--" Heather shot an apologetic glance at Eleanor. "--the cello, too. And the piano."
Do-Jin took his turn. "I'm the last person, and it seems I'm the only one who plays Eastern music." He lightly punched Liam's arm. "I'm playing with you then, eh, Smith?" Do-Jin's father owned Woo Yong's Taekwondo Academy, the facility Faelen and he used to return to Nathanial's today. The young Leopard had recently been introduced to the Monks and met Liam a few times. He did not know anything about Liam's true nature.
Heather shifted a little closer to him when she went to ask, "So, um, what do you play?"
"Ah, right. Do-Jin Yong, class 12-B. I play the gayageum and its Japanese and Chinese variants, the koto and guzheng. They're very similar, but still have different enough of a personality that it's fun switching between them. I'm guessing I'll be playing the guzheng for these pieces." He'd played a travel-sized guzheng at the audition and showed great skill with that style of zither.
Liam nodded. "If you please." He addressed the room at large. "I have nine pieces selected here, but I would like to cut that number to five, maybe six if we have two of the short ones. We will have one, or both, of the vocal pieces for Jeff Walker to sing." He glanced at the Lab. "That depends on you, primarily. To sing both would run about ten minutes, and Ha, wie will ich triumphieren is a very difficult piece, if short. Otherwise, one of the two Chinese pieces, two of the four quartets, and the fifth piece is an old Japanese song." He decided to play the piece he had composed for Kaoru-sama's mother. "It requires a biwa, so I do not know if anyone can play it."
Betty sniffed and crossed her arms. "Of course. Just get me one, and I'll be ready to play it by the auction."
Gamaliel glared at her. "So, what's a biwa?"
Betty sneered back at him. "A Japanese instrument, of course."
Do-Jin looked like he was close to laughing. "You can play an instrument with your hindpaws? I'm impressed." The Pekinese looked really taken aback while Liam looked on, not sure whether he should interrupt, but amused all the same. The sleek Leopard pressed on. "It's a very rare art form, and almost lost during the Meiji Restoration." That much was true. "You have to sit crouched over and play four sets of strings at the same time with your claws. The strings are very fragile, too, so if you're careless you can end up slicing them instead of plucking them. It's a super-zither, and one I've been afraid to even try."
"I-I-I..." All those in the room burst into laughter, excepting Liam and Betty, though the former did think it was most humorous. The shock on her face quickly turned to anger. "If you're afraid of a stupid instrument, I know who not to turn to for protection, then. Cowards like you are worthless. I'll make sure the girls at school know to look elsewhere if they want a real man; even a child, like Lima here, is more a man than you."
It was Do-Jin's turn to darken in fury as most of the room gasped 'Ooh!' in a range of emotions going from admiration to surprise. Gamaliel, Heather, and Liam were the exceptions, though Heather didn't look angry like the Abyssinian Cat but more disappointed that the Leopard she appeared attracted to could be verbally outmanoeuvred so easily.
Liam flooded the room with chi for a moment to stun the others as he snapped, "Silence!" All those in the room, including Do-Jin, froze in fright; Liam had thought the Monk should be far enough along in his lessons in manipulating chi to resist such a simple trick. Though, given the way many rubbed their temples, perhaps he had overdone it. "Chan, your pointless bravado is not endearing yourself to the other musicians." He glared at Do-Jin. "Your joke may have been humorous, but this was not the time." Liam addressed the entirety of those gathered. "A biwa is a Japanese instrument, and it was almost lost as an art form during the Meiji Restoration; however, it is akin to the lute, not the zither. For those who do not know what a lute is, it is an instrument similar to a guitar, if a bit smaller. The song was written for a six-string and five-fret version." Jeff perked up and opened his mouth, but he was too slow.
Betty's lips curled back into a snarl directed at Do-Jin, though she spoke to Liam. "So, it's like a pipa." Her voice became most saccharine. "It's a Chinese lute, Dough-boy." She resumed her conversation with the Rottie. "I can play the pipa, so the biwa shouldn't be hard to pick up."
Liam caught Jeff's aborted attempt at saying something only when it was too late, as well as his somewhat deflated expression. The Ancient One shook his head. "The biwa is smaller but has more strings, and it is played in a manner more similar to the guitar than a pipa. It uses a plectrum of great size rather than plucking the strings with one's fingers. I can play the pipa and gaku-biwa, but I have never learnt the type of biwa used in this piece. I do not say it is impossible for you to learn, but I do caution against underestimating the differences."
Jeff raised his paw timidly seeking to speak, but Betty appeared to intentionally speak over him. "I do caution against underestimating me. I'll learn it and your music, for all sets, in every role. I'll show all of you that I'm the best musician in the school."
She did not receive one admiring or favourable word, not even a neutral expression. 'Disdain' would be the most pleasant way to describe the reaction to her vainglorious pronouncement. Jeff surprisingly seized the opportunity presented by the utter silence to finally give voice. "I play the lute as a hobby. I've played at a few fairs, though not in any competitions. Betty might end up being better, but I can certainly try to learn it, if you're able to help me."
So, now Liam must obtain two biwa, though he had an idea of where to start.
One that Do-Jin seemed to consider, too. "Hey, Smith, how's about you ask Mrs. Miyaki? She might have some biwa in her shop. If she doesn't, she probably knows someone you could borrow them from."
That would be Miyaki Ballesteros, family name of Ballesteros, the owner of The Ikebana Shop. She taught Japanese flower arranging on top of running a store selling local crafts and artistic items imported from Japan. Mrs. Ballesteros did not work actively with the Monks but was certainly favourable to their cause and did many small things for them. She was good friends with Do-Jin's parents. Liam mostly knew her due to her husband, Pietro, who was a Minotaur. When clothed, the Nightwalker could pass for an exceptionally large Bull, and he had helped the Monks on a few occasions where pure muscle had been required.
"I had already considered that. I will call once we are done here." Liam nodded to Jeff. "I will try to help, and I thank you for your offer." He glanced between the two Dogs in the room -- excluding himself. "I shall have to help the both of you. There are, as far as I could find, no recordings of this piece, so I shall have to offer much advice on how to play it as it is meant." Before Betty could remark snidely on his offer of assistance, Liam turned to Gamaliel and Do-Jin. "Could you learn how to play Chu Ge and Yang Chun Bai Xue? One would be the backup in the event neither Betty nor Jeff can learn the biwa and the piece in time. I know the pipa accompaniment for the latter piece, so I would prefer it if that were the backup. I need not be on stage for every performance."
The Abyssinian laid the papers back on his lap, popped a chocolate bonbon into his mouth, and spoke around the morsel. "Sure! I've played the entirety of The Magic Flute several times, including as the soloist in last year's school recital, so I'd enjoy a challenge like this. I'll have to find a good recording of this piece; I've never heard of it before." Gamaliel glanced at the write-up again. "Oh, you included a URL for one? Cool."
Do-Jin nodded. "That makes it easier. I've played versions of Spring Snow -- that's the other piece, Gam -- so we can spend more time on Chu Ge."
Gamaliel looked over the score for Chu Ge. "It calls for the xun?" He explained what the instrument was for the others: "It's a type of ocarina; an ancient one. I heard it was supposed to be about 7,000 years old."
Jeff looked nervously over the arrangement for Ha, wie will ich triumphieren. That was one of the most difficult arias for a basso singer in opera, and came from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Eleanor, too, looked over that arrangement. "This is fairly short, but it looks complicated, especially for the singer. Look at the jump in notes! It's over an octave!" She gaped and turned to the terrified Lab. "Can you even sing that low?"
David's head lolled around so he could grin toothily at the Manx beside him...and at Liam next to her. "The producer over there has confidence in his Canid companion, Ellie, so who are were to question? Dogs stick up for their own."
Liam arched an eyebrow at the Ragdoll Cat. "I do have confidence in him. The confidence that he will tell me if he cannot sing that low, or that he cannot -- after sufficient practice -- master the piece. Otherwise, I believe he will perform remarkably. This piece is short and is an extra to pad out his time on stage. The Magic Flute is not the most rousing piece for singer or musician, so I sought one of sufficient challenge for Walker to shine with, yet short enough that it would not be missed if skipped."
Heather's quills rattled as she shifted around. "So, we have both Asian pieces being learnt...just in case, and both vocals, again, just in case. Are we going to learn all of the quartets for that reason, too?" She glanced down at her papers and then back up at Liam. "If... If I can ask, um, who are you? I know you're Liam Smith, but what class are you in? What do you play?"
David Brown chuckled maliciously. "You don't know? He's some self-styled genius who skipped a couple grades by writing the grade eight and nine exams at the same time last year. He's the charity case in 10-A, the same class as the wunderkind." The Ragdoll obviously referred to Nathanial, but the derisive tone seemed beyond even his standard disgusting, discriminatory attitude.
Liam's glare met the golden eyes of the Cat, and he bore his chi down upon him for a few seconds, smiling inwardly as the brat quailed.
Heather sighed. "Then he's in the same class as Geoff." She even clasped her paws in front of her chest. "What a Fur. That accent, oh my heavens." The stars faded from her eyes. "What's he like? Do you know his favourite food? Dark chocolate or milk?"
Liam turned away from the cowed child and answered the Hedgehog's questions. He kept his face admirably impassive despite his inner smirk. "He likes buns that are substantial and filling. Nothing too soft or flat, for he...has quite the appetite. I do not know what form of sweets he likes or if he is all that fond of chocolate."
The Manx chimed in and gestured at the Chinese desserts languishing upon the table. "Do you think a basket of pumpkin buns would catch his attention, then? Something like a pumpkin pie but in a sweet roll?" Liam was uncertain about Geoff, but he believed he would like that -- without the accompanying feminine fawning, of course. "Or a mincemeat one?" No, Geoff would not like his meat minced.
Heather met Eleanor's gaze, and their eyes shot proverbial daggers at each other. If Liam could foster this rivalry into an active courting of Geoff, it could turn into a most amusing pastime. "He is fond of forget-me-nots. I believe he was searching for some the other week, but they are difficult to find. He is unfamiliar with the stores in the area and likely did not know where he could find local art, like a pawcrafted mug or embroidered duvet cover." The cogs most visibly turned in both women's heads even as their eyes sought to slay their potential rival.
Jeff opened his muzzle, but the voice of that unpleasant Ragdoll Cat once more oozed into the conversation. "Sounds like he's a pansy. What guy wants flowers on his bed?" Geoff was a 'pansy' in one sense and truly enjoyed his myosotis in bed, on a bed, around a bed, or even well away from a bed.
Jeff's eyes flared, but the tongues of Heather and Eleanor were far swifter. The Manx rounded fiercely upon the startled Cat beside her. "A guy worth having, you fucking dolt! And that's rich coming from you, you lazy piece of shit. He plays soccer, while you sit around inside and play the viola! Not even a manly instrument like the drums, but the girliest string instrument there is! And you think he's a pansy?!"
Heather began tearing into his 'lack of culture.' "He's European. They understand beauty and aren't worried about what immature boors like you think. He's probably a sensitive soul under all that muscle with a romantic heart thundering under those luscious pecs. His strong arms could enfold his lover and hold her close while he whispers sweet poetic words into her ears." A tiny squeal escaped her as stars once more danced in her eyes. Liam had heard some startling romantic speech from Geoff, but he would not consider the Elemental a true romantic or at all poetic.
Gamaliel watched in amusement as the girls emasculated David and dismissed him as a barbarian; those two truly seemed to delight in watching others be taken down a peg. "I'm sure this is a pleasant diversion, ladies, but I thought we were asking about the friend of the Japanese nobility here." He gestured at Liam. "It sounds like the mystery Dog is going to bring several lords and their samurai over to listen to his music, and we don't even know what instruments he plays." The Abyssinian Cat might have been teasing the girls, but his eyes showed a measure of hostility when he looked at Liam.
Liam frowned back at him in mild annoyance. Lords? Samurai? What kind of event did these children think they were running? "I am Liam Smith, and yes, I am in 10-A. I play an array of instruments: flute, syrinx, shakuhachi, xiao, violin, pipa, and the gaku-biwa."
Jeff tipped his head to one side and started to ask a question, but Betty cut across him again to ask, "If you play--?"
The Lab seemed to finally become vexed enough to talk over someone else when they cut him off. His deep voice, when projected like now, rolled over the Pekinese's and thoroughly drowned her out. "As I was trying to say! The shakuhachi should be simple enough for Gamaliel--" Betty glared at her classmate in fury -- once she recovered enough to stop gaping. Jeff appeared to become nervous but continued on. "--to learn. So why not let him play that part?"
Do-Jin shrugged and answered for Liam. "If he plays the gaku-biwa, then it's not the same thing as just a biwa. The playing style is different, as are the number of strings and frets. It shouldn't be very hard, though. He just might be nervous about playing a new instrument in front of representatives of the Imperial Court."
Liam shot a withering glance at the other Monk, but decided to ignore the vexing rumour mongering. "Indeed, it shouldn't, but I have many other things requiring my time, such as finishing the paintings. I cannot spare the time necessary to learn a new instrument."
Eleanor tossed the papers onto the coffee table. "Then just forget it and pick another piece. There must be tens of thousands of other Japanese pieces you could pick from to play for the Empress."
The Rottie gave in to temptation and rubbed his forehead, exasperated. "I have heard nothing about Empress Michiko or Princess Masako coming to this auction, nor of a representative of theirs. The rumours have no basis in fact. I expect business people from China and Japan to be in attendance, and perhaps a few government officials from China. Nothing more."
The Manx shrugged and gestured at the scores. "All right. I'm actually a bit relieved about that, but you didn't answer the question: why that piece is non-negotiable when it seems to be more uncertain than anything else in there. It doesn't seem all that spectacular."
The former shinobi had no rational response, and certainly not a reason he wished to share. "It... I cannot..." He sighed and gave in. "It is special to me. I have not heard it in a very long time, not since the person I learnt it for died. I...wished to play it, to hear it, again." All those in the room fell silent and stared at him, including Betty. Liam could not prevent his face from flushing or his fur from fluffing up.
David sat up straight. "Dude. That's...uh, wow."
Jeff quickly chimed in. "Hey." Once he seemed more certain he would not be cut off he resumed talking in his normal, soft tone. "I promise, Smith, that I'll learn the piece, even if it isn't in time for the auction. You'll get to play it again. Maybe we can even record it so you can hear it whenever you want."
Liam cleared his throat of a sudden emotional obstruction. "That is most generous of you; I appreciate it." Jeff's eyes were almost the same colour Kaoru-sama's had been.
Before Liam could turn the conversation back to the whole reason they were gathered, Gamaliel once more diverted the conversation. He sounded like he sought to jest. "So, if we have Chinese officials coming, I'm guessing we'll have that Marks pup's co-workers in CSIS there to watch them? Or is the wunderkind enough to protect them and keep them from spying?"
David slouched down in his chair and languidly gestured with the chips he held in a paw. "If he could pick Iain up with one paw and toss him across the courtyard, then I doubt he needs any help. If I didn't see it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it. I'm still not sure I do." Liam considered the statement. Iain must be the Horse who had bullied Jeff, and good riddance to him.
Eleanor shook her head in disbelief. "I know. He looked so soft, like Jeff here, though he's bulking up very nicely." Heather perked up at that. The Manx turned to the three youngest students. "How did he throw him like that? Are all those rumours true?"
Betty sniffed disdainfully, but Jeff's tail began to wag rapidly. He spoke louder than normal in his excitement. "I'm not entirely sure. I didn't know him before this year; I just moved to Halifax from Bedford over the summer, so I can't say what he was like before this. I can say he's really kind and gentle until you piss him off." Those brown eyes sparkled just like Kaoru-sama's did the first time Yoishi lifted him off his horse at the waterfall glade. "He took out a bunch of thugs when they tried to kidnap him, and I read an article that showed he killed a whole squad of terrorists at the airport. The mainstream media played down the number of people involved to keep the public from panicking." Liam huffed; rumours about the incidents appeared to be far more vivid than he'd thought. Still not on par with reality, of course, but vexing nonetheless.
Do-Jin frowned. "I heard it was Smith here that killed the thugs with his bare paws--" The talk of killing appeared to trouble Eleanor; she stared at the Ancient One with a horrified expression. "--and I have a cousin who works at the airport, and he told me that no one died. Two guys took bullets through the thigh, and another person got shot through the shoulder, but nothing fatal." Jeff looked over at Betty as if he expected her to protest that Lima could not possibly hope to hurt -- let alone kill -- someone, but she looked 'oddly' afraid. Do-Jin noticed as well. "He's quite the martial artist, Betty. My dad speaks very highly of him, and with a lot of respect. Almost all the other high-ranked martial artists do, too."
David looked most doubtful, as did Heather. She obliquely inquired, "Who's your dad?"
The sleek Leopard smiled, fully understanding the unasked question. "Woo Yong of Woo Yong's Taekwondo Academy on Chebucto Road. Smith takes kung fu so I've never sparred with him, but a bunch of the masters of all the arts get together every so often, and they all know Smith and talk about him the same way. He's the best in the province from the sounds of it, if not the country."
Now all eyes other than Eleanor's looked upon Liam as if he had uttered words as vain as Betty had earlier. David did not bother with the obliqueness Heather used. "Right. Uh-huh. What belt are you Smith? When did you start training?"
The Ancient One understood their scepticism and would have felt much the same had their positions been reversed, but it still annoyed him. He was more annoyed with Do-Jin, though. "I started when I was three. I go once a day, when my schedule allows, and practice on my own each morning before school. I have no belt, as I do not believe in such rankings, nor does the owner of the facility I frequent. He offers them solely to appease Western sentimentality. It is the Japanese who started the belt rankings, and colours were not assigned to those below black. It is here that visual displays of status are required. As a note, it is only the Korean and Japanese styles that use belts; the Chinese use sashes."
David appeared to hear but one thing. "So you don't have a belt."
Betty's voice quavered as she offered, "He... He has a rank." All noted the tone and looked between the two Dogs. The Pekinese looked everywhere but at the Rottweiler.
Gamaliel waited a few seconds more before demanding an answer. "So spill it."
Her voice was uncharacteristically faint as if she feared to anger Liam, but there was an undercurrent in her chi that spoke of malice. "Si jo."
Apparently that was not enough for any but Do-Jin. He choked on his soda, and sprayed some onto his shirt before devolving into a coughing fit. Do-Jin recovered enough to splutter. "They just don't give--" He cut himself off and looked at the small Rottie beside him. He had been about to say, 'They just don't give that rank to someone so young.' They did not. No martial art that Liam knew of would give a black belt or sash, or any sort of title other than novice, to a child under sixteen, if not eighteen. Do-Jin most likely would be asking his father if Liam was a Nightwalker as soon as he got home.
David frowned at the Leopard. "What is a si jo? You think she's lying?"
Gamaliel turned instead to Liam. "Is that your rank? What dan is that?" Dan was the Japanese levels for those awarded a black belt, and ran from one to ten. It was the dan that was important, not the physical belt. Anyone could buy a belt, but only a few could award a certificate for a dan, much like a university diploma.
Hao Chan's growl echoed in the hallway as he approached with a few bags of snacks to replenish that which had been eaten. "My daughter is not lying. Si Jo Smith has more than earned such a title, the greatest title that may be bestowed."
It was the greatest title Liam would accept; jo si was possibly a higher rank and was used solely for the founder of a style. Jo si could also be interpreted as 'the ancestor's teacher,' rather than si jo's 'the teacher's ancestor.' A subtle difference to some, but it made sense if the teaching ranks were thought of as ancestors with the students as children: si fu was parent and taught the children, si gung was grandparent and one who taught the parent, si tai gung was great grandparent or ancestor, and si jo would be the great-great grandparent and the one who taught the ancestor. That would place jo si as far back as the line could be traced, like Geoff's ancestor, Dougal, founder of the McDougal lineage. Liam refused to allow that title to be used because it would be even harder to explain than si jo, and he did not actually create any style; he was merely there when someone else had.
Liam switched to Cantonese. <<That is enough, Mr. Chan.>>
The older Pekinese instantly stopped talking and bowed. <<My apologies. You should not let them speak to you in such a manner.>>
<<It is my choice to make.>> Liam's host quickly bowed twice more as he backed away and left. Everyone stared at Liam; Do-Jin, in particular, seemed most unnerved. The Rottie acted as if nothing happened. "Now, let us turn to the reason we are here. If we could have votes on the four quartets, which two would you wish to play?"
Unfortunately, some would not be diverted. Heather looked at Betty and then Liam. "That was Hao Chan. He owns Chan Imports, Phoenix Shipping, and a couple other businesses." That was not quite accurate; Hao was on the board of Phoenix Shipping and did not own it. It would be more accurate to say the Monks owned it, if the Monks as a whole could be said to own anything. "He... He's a very powerful figure in Nova Scotian business. And you speak Chinese?"
Do-Jin quickly interceded. "And I speak Korean. It means nothing. I'm sure Mr. Chan was just being respectful to the kung fu master. I've seen Mr. Chan at those martial art meetings I talked about when my dad took me; he's a black belt in kung fu, but only a si fu."
Eleanor threw the conversation back several minutes like she just now found her voice. "You've killed people, Liam?"
Did he wish to allow people to address him so familiarly? He told Dirk to do so, but he did not wish distance from his great grandson. And possibly soon-to-be father-in-law. He said, and honestly felt, that he should not be encouraging distance from others, but really, did he want to be close to those like these children -- or any at this school? As he could not be selective in such a locale, it might be best to keep on as he was. "Smith. I do not like people addressing me with familiarity until I know them better."
David snorted. "And you're from Nova Scotia? You speak Asian, you dress Asian, and you're as stuffy as an Asian. I thought Dogs liked rap, spoke in gangster slang, and wore clothes that barely stayed on."
All three Canids looked at him in disgust. Liam bore his chi down on the odious fellow once more. "Dogs are present on every inhabited continent, and we share the culture of the region we are born in. Just because most slaves in the States were Dogs and have developed a subculture rooted in oppression and poverty does not mean we all share it, or that only Dogs partake in it. For the record, I spoke in Cantonese, and this is the clothing of the Han Chinese, and many cultures do not allow overfamiliarity as a matter of course. The British did not, and in some circles, still do not address their fellows by given name."
The Ragdoll rubbed his head in a vain attempt to alleviate his sudden headache.
The Manx asked again, "You killed people?!"
Liam's voice matched his expressionless face. "Yes. They were a threat. I do not tolerate threats." He looked away, toward the centre of the room, but let his gaze meet Betty's for a second before continuing on. The mood in the room chilled several degrees. "Music. I ask again, which two quartets shall we play?"
It took some time and wrangling, but eventually the musicians settled on two: Borodin's String Quartet #2, the nocturne movement; and Brahms String Quartet #1 in C minor Op. 51, the romance movement. Eleanor would play cello for both, Heather and Betty the violin in Brahms', Liam and Heather the violin in Borodin's, and David would play viola in both. All of the musicians, except Do-Jin, would play during Jeff's performances. Once that had been finalized, to Betty's displeasure, the musicians set out to their homes; Jeff was kind enough to offer a ride home for Liam, which he accepted.