The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water – Zen Cho

There was a brief lull in the general chatter when the bandit walked into the coffeehouse. This was not because of the knife at his hip or his dusty attire, suggestive of a life spent in the jungle. It was not the first time Weng Wah Coffeehouse had seen a bandit and it would not be the last. The coffeehouse was the kind of establishment common in any town with more than two Tang people. The floors were tiled and of dubious cleanliness. A painting of a herd of horses dominated the green walls. Below the horses were posters advertising beverages of various types. The tables were sticky, the waiters loud and the chairs rickety. And as in any town on the peninsula with more than two Tang people, everyone there was used to bandits. It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible. This bandit did not look like anyone’s brother. His chief characteristic, and what made everyone fall silent for an unintended moment, was his extreme beauty. His skin was as pure as jade; his eyes and eyebrows were like ink; his dark hair, bound in a queue, was like silk; and his face was like the full moon among clouds. The waiter stood gaping at him. The bandit had to gesture pointedly at the table before Ah Kheng leapt into action with a grubby cloth.

“You have soya bean?” said the bandit. “I’ll have it hot and sweet.” The chatter resumed, though there was a new frisson to it. It was mid-morning, so the worst of the breakfast rush had subsided, but there were still plenty of customers. Some departed discreetly, but others stayed, stealing glances at the bandit. The bandit was used to surreptitious scrutiny and did not let it bother him. He smiled enchantingly at Ah Kheng when his drink arrived, but otherwise paid no attention to anyone else. He was busy reading the poster pinned above his table. It was one of the few posters that did not extol the delights of beer or umbra juice. Instead, it depicted the morose faces of five men.

Beneath these, a calligrapher had inscribed: By the order of the Protector, guardian of all that lies between the Straits and the Southern Seas, any sighting of these bandits is to be reported to the Protectorate at once. Anyone found to have given these criminals succour will be punished. The bandit was gazing so intently at the wanted men that he did not appear to notice the quarrel brewing between a waitress and the customer at the next table. He didn’t stir even when the customer shouted: “Useless girl, did you think I wouldn’t notice your jampi?” The observers could never agree on what happened next. Some vowed the cup of tea jumped into the air of its own accord. But of course this was not possible. The waitress must have thrown it at the shouting customer. In any case, the man smacked it away. It went flying, hurtling towards the back of the bandit’s head. The bandit leaned out of the way and watched as tea drenched the poster.

The cup clattered onto his table, rolling to a stop. “What’s going on?” cried the owner of the coffeehouse, rushing out of the kitchen. He took in the situation in one horrified glance. The waitress was looking defiant, the customer irate. The latter wore once-rich robes that had seen better days. There was a gap in his front teeth where, perhaps, a gold tooth had once been. The coffeehouse owner snapped at the waitress, “What did you do?” The customer was red-faced. “This girl tried to hex me! You don’t try to deny. I know what magic smells like!” “I didn’t try to deny also,” said the waitress, with an injured air. She was probably not much younger than the bandit, but her bald head gave her an innocent look.

She was pretty enough that she did not suffer from adopting the grooming standards of the monastic orders. To look at her was to wonder why all women did not shave their heads. She gave the coffeehouse owner a look of appeal, but he was unmoved. “You hexed a customer?” he roared. He smacked her on the side of the head. “I didn’t say that, Mr Aw,” protested the waitress, rubbing her head. “I just said I didn’t deny only.” “What kind of establishment is this, hiring witches to serve people?” said the customer. “Normal people are too expensive, is it?” Mr Aw looked anxious. “Sir, please…” The bandit’s eyebrow twitched.

He sighed and turned around. “It’s not the girl’s fault,” he said. “Uncle started it.” He gestured at the angry customer. “That sounds highly unlikely!” said Mr Aw. “Who are you to say?” said the irate customer to the bandit. “You didn’t even see what was happening!” “I heard you pinch the other waiter’s ass,” said the bandit, bored. “It’s not even that good an ass. Shouldn’t you be more discriminating when you harass people?” “That’s so rude,” said the waitress indignantly. “Ah Kheng, you don’t listen to him! You have a very nice ass!” Ah Kheng had vanished, but his voice drifted out from the kitchen: “Please stop talking about my ass.

” “Ah, sorry,” said the bandit. He looked mildly embarrassed. “If I knew you were there, I wouldn’t have commented on your ass.” He turned to the irate customer. “Uncle, give face to this gentleman— what’s your name?” “Mr Aw,” said Mr Aw. “Mr Aw is just trying to run his business,” said the bandit to the customer. “It’s hard to make a living these days. We Tang people must try to get along.” He reached into his robe and drew out a woven purse, which he threw at the coffeehouse owner. Mr Aw caught it with the neatness of a man who would know the jingling of cash at fifty paces.

He opened the purse while the waitress peered over his shoulder. Their eyes widened. “A thank you for maintaining the peace in your coffeehouse,” said the bandit. He nodded at the waitress. “And for being a benevolent employer.” He turned back to his study of the poster with the air of one washing his hands of the matter. “Are you going to—you’re just going to take a bribe right in front of me?” said the irate customer. “Sir could have half?” said Mr Aw. “I don’t want half,” said the customer. “I want justice!” “In these times justice is hard to get,” said the waitress sagely.

“Better you take the money, sir. Maybe you cannot afford a new tooth, but you can definitely buy new clothes.” “You…!” There was a tearing noise from the bandit’s table. They fell quiet, but the bandit was only folding the poster delicately and putting it into his robe. He stood up. “Ah, sir,” said Mr Aw. “Sorry, but I have to keep that sign, sir. I’ll get in trouble if the mata see I don’t have it.” “Difficult,” agreed the bandit. “But what can I do? I can’t read it here.

That fellow is too noisy. I cannot focus.” He jerked his head towards the irate customer, who turned purple. “Who asked you to be a busybody?” said the customer. “Uncle, you’re being very troublesome,” said the bandit. “Look, you’ve chased away all of Mr Aw’s customers already. Why don’t you leave with me? “I don’t mean go away together,” he clarified. “I mean leave here at the same time, separately. Let the lady be. Heaven will punish her if she is wrong.

” “That’s right,” said the waitress, but the customer did not agree. “‘Lady’!” he snorted. “This girl is a useless slut.” “Actually, I’m a nun,” said the waitress, pointing at her bald head. “So, literally the opposite of a slut!” “Oh, shut up,” growled the customer. He backhanded her. The waitress fell back, looking more startled than frightened. The bandit sighed. “That wasn’t very gentlemanly.” “Nobody asked you, pretty boy!” snapped the customer.

The bandit’s forehead furrowed. “Is that the best insult you can offer? Never mind.” There weren’t many witnesses left to quarrel about what happened next. But as he peeked out from the kitchen, Ah Kheng saw the bandit take the customer’s feet out from under him and pin him up against the wall. It was done in one fluid movement from start to finish. “Now,” said the bandit. But there was more to the customer than his appearance indicated. He spat in the bandit’s face. As the bandit recoiled, the customer’s hand moved to his side. Metal gleamed between their bodies.

“Brother, watch out!” cried Ah Kheng, but he needn’t have worried about the bandit. The bandit slipped the customer’s dagger out of his hand, whistling when he got a closer look at it. “This is a nice keris!” The bandit wiped his face against his sleeve. “Where did you get it from? Keris have souls, you know. It’s bad luck to steal one if your spirit is not strong.” “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” screamed the customer. “Little brother, come to me!” He launched himself at the bandit. The waitress was bouncing on the soles of her feet, looking for a gap between the fighters, when a strong grip seized her by both arms, immobilising her. She looked up into the customer’s face. She looked back at the fighting men.

The bandit was flinging the customer into a stack of chairs. A man could not be in two places at once. Unless … “Black magic!” she gasped. “No wonder he’s so fast to accuse people of jampi.” “You’re going to learn to respect people,” growled the irate customer’s duplicate, hoisting her into the air. “What about your master?” said the waitress. “Respect goes two ways. When’s he going to learn to respect people?” Before the duplicate could answer, a chair slammed into the back of its head. Its eyes rolled up and it slumped. The waitress managed to wriggle out of its grasp before it collapsed with a thud that shook the floor.

She looked reproachfully at the man holding the chair. “Couldn’t you wait? I wanted to know what it was going to say.” “You’re welcome,” said the man. He set down the chair and looked past her at the fight. Mr Aw had retreated to the kitchen, where he and Ah Kheng could be seen goggling while the bandit and the disgruntled customer threw each other around. The newcomer sighed. It was clear he, too, was a bandit. Like the first bandit, he had an outlaw’s air and wore clothes that had seen a great deal of contact with the elements, but he was not at all beautiful. If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded. He was of medium height, dark for a Tang person and sturdily made.

His long hair was bound into a tail at the top of his head, and he had a parang strapped across his back. “Do I want to know what happened here?” he said. “Your sworn brother is defending my honour,” explained the waitress. “It’s very nice of him. Of course, now I will definitely lose my job. But I’m sure his intentions are good.” The clay-vessel bandit looked at her. “You’re a devotee of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.” The waitress grinned. “How could you tell?” The clay-vessel bandit shook his head.

“This Ah Lau is always doing unnecessary things.” He produced a small bag from his robes, pouring out a generous number of copper coins onto his palm and holding them out to the waitress. “For your lost job.” “You bandits must be doing well,” said the waitress, impressed. The clay-vessel bandit put the bag back into his robe. “You should go.” “What are you going to do, brother?” “Nothing you should see,” said the clay-vessel bandit. “But I want to—” “Go.” The waitress looked mutinous, but he didn’t look at her, and after a moment she went. In fact, the clay-vessel bandit did not do anything spectacular.

That would not have been his style. He stumped over to the fighters, undaunted by the broken-off chair legs, plates with noodles still on them and soiled cutlery flying through the air. As he approached, the first bandit ducked and the customer hauled off, preparing to punch him. The clay-vessel bandit grabbed the customer’s arm and said: “You can choose to stop fighting, or I can stop you. It’s up to you.” “Eat shit, bastard!” The clay-vessel bandit shrugged. He jabbed the customer in the neck with two fingers and watched dispassionately as the man crumpled to the floor. The first bandit rose, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck. “I wish you’d teach me how to do that, Ah Sang.” The clay-vessel bandit was known as Tet Sang to his friends.

“You’d only do useless things with it,” he said. He gave the devastation around them a pointed look. “What are you going to say to the owner?” “I paid him already,” said the first bandit, but he wasn’t interested in Mr Aw’s feelings. He fumbled in his robe, taking out the poster. “Look. What do you think?” Tet Sang read the heading aloud: “Notice regarding the incorrigible criminals, enemies of the Protectorate, Lau Fung Cheung and his men.” His face darkened. “It was only a matter of time before we started drawing attention, I suppose.” “At least it’s free advertising,” said the first bandit, who happened to be Lau Fung Cheung. “Maybe we’ll get new business.

” “It’s one thing to be known as men willing to bend the law,” said Tet Sang. “But nobody wants to hire wanted criminals.” He studied the portraits, his head to one side. “You’re better-looking in real life. The artist must be somebody’s cousin.” Extraordinarily, Lau Fung Cheung blushed. “Are you done?” said Tet Sang. “Can we go?” “I haven’t finished my drink,” said Fung Cheung. His table and soya bean milk had somehow survived the battle. He picked up his glass and sipped from it.

He made a face. “Cold already.” His sworn brother rolled his eyes. Mr Aw, lurking behind the counter, yelped and ducked when their eyes met. “Drink up,” said Tet Sang. “I’ll settle the bill.”

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