. . . Specifically, of two travelers standing at a weed-choked crossroads. One, a woman, was (to judge from the gray garment that left her faceless and formless) a mendicant or clothes-washer; the other was a man the yellow and blue silk of whose apparel—no doubt worth a number of yuan greater than can comfortably be considered—had taken on a dim lifelessness in the shadow of the coming storm. Something and yet nothing had just taken place, a glance, a sudden concealed movement as the wayfarers passed one another, and for a moment all was very, very still.
"You, woman—I do not know you." The man took a step back, nearly losing his footing in the undergrowth.
"Ah," came the half-whispered reply, "that is a distinctive fate for you. To be known to so many girls, and yet to have forgotten them . . ."
The man, whose courtesy name was Liang the Laughingthrush and who was indeed broadly practiced in the Way of temporary passion and subsequent disavowal, now realized why instinct had warned him not to turn his back on this woman. Confidence filled him; this was familiar ground he stood on.
"Hm! I should have known as much," he began, collected, insouciant. "Before we allow this encounter to take its course, I must remark on its precedents." He settled into his favored martial stance—delicate, stiff almost, the pose of a man about to invite someone to dance with him. "You should know, no-longer-young fellow traveler down this path of life, that I am years past behavior of the sort of which you intend to accuse me."
The woman cocked her head as if to say So you pretend to be a changed man?
"You think I pretend to be a changed man! Hardly. I, the Laughingthrush, regret nothing—but the ranks of nothings who wish I regretted them, with their ledgers of the heart, their dreadful female bringing-to-account—"
The sky rumbled.
"—swelled some time ago to a tiresome fullness. Evidently I was sufficiently renowned that they were able to find one another by following the common thread of my name, and band together—did you know that? You could have joined them, if you'd been a little quicker about it.
"They were the reason for my change of career, of course. Once they'd finalized whatever pact they drew up among themselves, they took to calling themselves the One Hundred Ninety-Nine Forthright and Vengeful Disciples and came after me. For years I had no rest! Most of them were dross, but a few made names for themselves in the jiang hu before their paths crossed mine: Iron Avalanche Xiao-Xiao, Heaven's Judgement in the Form of a Hundred Shadowless Kicks Executed in the Space of an Instant, Silken Thunder, Retributive Fox, Infuriated Liu . . . I was obliged to toughen my fair hands, condition my body from sleekness to base utility . . . dreadful."
"And why," half-whispered the interlocutor of Liang the Laughingthrush, "did they refer to themselves as 'Disciples'?"
Liang laughed. "A fine question. Because of you, my dear!"
The woman took a step back; a single drop of rain bisected the air between the two and lay dying at their feet.
"Do you think, woman, that that unbecoming rasp you've adopted has concealed your voice? Your voice, which once I heard to cry my name in the innermost circle of desire's maze? You are none other than my very first lover, who disappeared into the wilderness when I was done with her, whom those other foolish women conflated with some female ascete, some warrior-renunciate, whom they resolved to seek and be trained by, whom they never found, whose expertise was sadly unavailable to them when they met me on the field of battle! Ha!"
The wind was blowing now, and for a split second it revealed a flash of saffron cloth beneath the woman's gray cloak. But the man ignored it, quite drunk by now on his own loquaciousness:
"But I, woman, I know better. To imagine that this, this Calamitous Abbess, this Tonsured Disaster, whatever she was called . . . to imagine that she and you were one and the same, that my legion of conquests could be edified in any way by your tutelage—it is to chortle! No, you had best run far, far away before I unleash the Eight Trigram Casanova Palm upon you and you are left dead. Or, worse, disfigured. Ha! Ha! H—"
His last guffaw, stillborn, languished in his throat; for a gust of wind had stripped the cowl from the woman's head. Above the face whose younger image he knew was an unfamiliar expanse: a shaven scalp like a smooth stone on which he could read his own epitaph.
"But—no—it's not possible! You cannot be the Ru—"
And the Laughingthrush's final sentiments were drowned out by a grand and terrible peal of thunder.