Chapter VI: The Tam Cúc Set

Phượng Ngân stood straight, with her sword’s tip resting on the ground. She pushed her own chin up and asked defiantly:

“Do you also think me a damsel in distress?”

“Nope. Not even remotely. Do I look like a blind man to you?”

He chuckled, before continuing, “But, sometimes, the fist isn’t the answer to everything. Come, sit down for a bit, and have a drink. I’ll explain everything.”

Điền Quý pulled out a chair for Phượng Ngân and pointed at the teapot on the table. Only after she had poured herself a drink did he continue:

“You know, the age we’re living in is different from the past. Better location technology, compasses and mapping, and better roads, too. There aren’t many people who get lost and die in the jungle anymore. And there are even fewer of those whose bodies couldn’t be found and buried properly. As a result, Ma Rừng has become an endangered species, listed in the Red List.”

“Even if they are endangered, my actions last night had been righteous self-defense.” Phượng Ngân argued.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t right. However, the authorities are trying to convince these Jungle Spirits to cooperate with us completely.” Điền Quý replied, “With their help, intelligence gathering will take a giant leap, not to mention logistics and other advantages. All in all, yesterday wasn’t just a random skirmish; there are politics at play here.”

“So, that’s why you said this had nothing to do with how strong I am.”

“Oh, you’re not just strong, but too powerful. If they take it as a challenge, the consequences will be dire.”

Điền Quý poured himself a cup of tea and took a sip.

Phượng Ngân gritted her teeth:

“But then what? Are we just supposed to watch them kidnap babies?”

“Of course not! How could you even think that? Ma Rừng’s lives are precious, but that doesn’t lessen humans’ lives value, does it? But these kinds of complicated things have their procedures and regulations. We can’t simply do what we feel is right and burn through the necessary steps.”

Điền Quý waved his hand before tapping his fingers on the table

“What do you mean?”

“Generally speaking, the first thing we have to do is give these spirits a warning and convince them to retreat. If they don’t heed that warning, then we can go for non-lethal capturing. If they resist capture, then killing a few off would still be easy enough to explain away with their King. But last night, I was barely setting up step one, nowhere near step two, yet you were already slicing them into pieces. That’s what made it complicated.”

He then shrugged:

“I don’t like all these bureaucracies, either, but there’s no way around them, is there? We’re living in a new era; it’s better to have the laws on our side…”

“So, then… yesterday… I implicated you?”

“Well, not entirely. I mean, to be fair, I made the conscious decision not to stop you sooner, so technically, I’m your partner in crime.”

He laughed, lazily stood up to stretch, then jerked his head toward then door:

“Let’s forget about all these macro stuff for now, though. Someone will be taking care of it. I’ve already located the man we’re looking for. You still coming or nah?”

***

After carefully locking their rooms behind them, Điền Quý and Phượng Ngân walked out of the Inn. It was around noon; the sweltering early summer sun had dried up the entire road, erasing every trace of last night’s thunderstorm. Quý glanced at his wristwatch and said:

“We’re still a bit early. Our target won’t be out until early evening.”

“Then we split up to do our own things. Meet back there at 4 PM?”

Phượng Ngân suggested while pointing at an ancient village gate nearby.

Her companion snorted, then yawned and started to walk toward the train station, seemingly agreeing.

Ngân let out a sigh of relief, then headed for the Village Gate. A few more steps from the Gate, there was a courtyard with an old sycamore tree. Under the tree’s shade stood a stone table, currently occupied by shirtless old men drinking tea and playing Tam Cúc for money[1]While the wiki says Tam Cúc is more popular among women, while Tổ Tôm is more popular among men, this is only true back in the feudal era. By the 1990s (when this novel take place), most people … Continue reading Their lively laughter and cheers seemed to drown out the music from the radio nearby.

A Tam Cúc set

Phượng Ngân waited for them to finish their first game, then tilted her head and said in a sweet and innocent voice:

“Wow, you’re having so much fun. May I join, please?”

The old men laughed out loud. One of them scootched over to make room for her:

“Sure thing, kiddo. Though, if you lose later, don’t say we old people bullied a young outsider[2]Old bullying young: Vietnamese/Chinese idiom, referring to those who use their age and wisdom to take advantage of or bully inexperienced youngsters., okay?”

The young girl kept her humble tone:

“Of course not. You can rest assured, I’ll face whatever consequences.”

“Aww, seeing she’s a sweet young girl, how about we take it a bit easy on her, fellas?”

“Then let her be the House and deal cards!”

The old men burst out laughing again, thinking to themselves they were about to make some money. None of them suspected that this had all been Phượng Ngân’s elaborate plan from the moment she saw them playing cards here.

***

“Should I feel bad for cheating like this?”

While dealing cards, she used a few sleights of hand. She was both quick and sneaky, so–of course–none of the old men suspected anything. As such, she kept winning and keeping the right to be the House. After just a few hours, all the men lost everything but the clothes on their bodies.

“That took care of the traveling fees.”

Watching the old men lumping away depressingly, even forgetting to take their radio with them, Phượng Ngân felt a bit guilty. However, no matter how much she thought about it, this had been the only quick way to get close to the locals and get information.

When she mentioned the guy whose entire clan died, one of the old men said in a trembling voice:

“I heard that around that time, his clan was trying to break ground on a piece of Fengshui land in Town A. But before construction was even finished, the entire family died suddenly and tragically. Since then, he became mute, not saying a single word to anyone. He’s a cycling tào phớ[3]A street snack originated from China (Douhua), but was changed to suit Vietnamese tastebud. seller these days.”

Currently, Phượng Ngân was reasonably sure the “mute” mentioned in the sixteen-word instruction was most definitely the sole survivor of that clan, the tào phớ seller. What piqued her curiosity was how the tomb builder had been able to predict his lineage’s tragedy, not to mention how the only survivor would become mute to fit into the first sentence.

As she stood up and was about to leave, the radio suddenly started to make weird sounds as if its signals were being interfered with. What’s worth mentioning, however, was that after some games, one of the old men had blamed the music for distracting him–causing him to lose–and unplugged it.

After a while, the sound was warped and came out as a high-pitched laugh:

“You only have one life. Better cherish it!”

Phượng Ngân confidently looked up at the tree crown and sneered:

“Is that threat all you got? How about come down here and see who’s afraid?”

No voice answered her, as the radio had gone utterly silent again.

The young girl brushed off her shirt, turned to leave, and left a sentence behind as she walked away:

“You should take your own advice just now. Better hang on to your life.”

On the road, the falling shadow of the sycamore tree somehow seemed eerily more still.

***

When Phượng Ngân got to the Gate, Điền Quý was already waiting on a xích lô (cyclo[4]In the 1990s-2000s, xích lô was a popular choice of transportation in Vietnam. Since sometime in the late-2000s to early-2010s, the vehicle has been restricted to serving tourists only). Seeing her, he patted the seat next to him, urging her to join him. As she climbed on board, he told her:

“Later, ignore our driver, don’t try to start any conversation. Also, don’t try to talk to the tào phớ seller, either. Otherwise, all our hard works will be for naught.”

As he said this, his face showed a rare seriousness. So, Ngân simply nodded in agreement without asking anything else.

The two of them pulled out the roof for cover. They didn’t have to wait long before a guy–with messy hair–slowly pushing a bicycle appeared from the nearby turn. Inside the front basket was a kettle, while on the backseat tied a big basket containing a pot of tào phớ and all sorts of miscellaneous things like bowls and spoons. As he walked, every once in a while, he would ring his bike bell to signal his passing.

The town’s folks seemed used to this as occasionally, someone would pop out of their houses and call him to their doorsteps. Each and every time, he would skillfully open the pot, fill their bowls with the white tofu using a large stainless steel spoon, then pour the sugary, grapefruit-flower-scented juice from the front kettle on top and handed the foods to them. For those who brought out their own bowls and spoons, he’d simply move on after he was done. But for those who used the ones he brought with him, he’d kick down the kickstand and wait for them–still as an unplugged robot–to finish.

People must have gotten used to his behavior, Phượng Ngân suspected, as what new customers could eat while he stared at them like that?

Điền Quý and Phượng Ngân’s cyclo gently followed the snack vendor, from big street roads to small alleys. It was pretty fortunate that with all his things, the tào phớ seller couldn’t enter passages too small for the cyclo to follow anyway.

Much like the snacks seller, their driver didn’t make a single sound, either. At times, Phượng Ngân felt like the two of them were playing a game: whoever to open their mouths first would lose.

From dusk until late night, the tào phớ seller was still pushing his bike, and the cyclo was still following closely behind. Waiting all this time and still hadn’t been able to ask the guy anything, Phượng Ngân was getting impatient. Meanwhile, Điền Quý was the exact opposite. It was as if he treated their evening excursion as taking the scenic route to see the town; after a while, he leaned back and slept without a care in the world.

The vendor kept walking until around 1 AM. At which point, he turned onto the riverside road before stopping at a train-track bridge. This area was far from the town center, without any houses or shops, so hardly anyone ever trod here. There was no lighting whatsoever under the bridge, only thick darkness roiling out under the faint moonlight up above.

The sounds of the bike wheels on the road, the old rusty chains moving, and the occasional bell ringing blended into a perfect–if not freakish–symphony. The dark tunnel slowly swallowed the crooked and staggering shadow of the tào phớ seller.

Notes:

Notes:
1 While the wiki says Tam Cúc is more popular among women, while Tổ Tôm is more popular among men, this is only true back in the feudal era. By the 1990s (when this novel take place), most people have forgotten the rules for Tổ Tôm due to its complexity, and Tam Cúc became more popular, along side Vietnamese card games using the French deck.
2 Old bullying young: Vietnamese/Chinese idiom, referring to those who use their age and wisdom to take advantage of or bully inexperienced youngsters.
3 A street snack originated from China (Douhua), but was changed to suit Vietnamese tastebud.
4 In the 1990s-2000s, xích lô was a popular choice of transportation in Vietnam. Since sometime in the late-2000s to early-2010s, the vehicle has been restricted to serving tourists only

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